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By Susan D. Blum

Another revolution is afoot in China, and it might even be considered cultural. But this one is about academic culture, as China’s slow-moving iceberg floats up against the glacial mass of “international” (read: Western) principles. The fallout is fascinating for observers, though in some cases tragic for the participants.

In recent months Qinghua University professor Wang Hui has been attacked for having committed academic misconduct in his dissertation in the 1980s (see coverage at Global Voices Online, China Beat, and Xinhuanet). Centenary College in New Jersey has shuttered a graduate business program in China because so many of its students plagiarized. China Daily has an article about “Academic Corruption Undermining Higher Education.” Philip Altbach writes a blog post in Inside Higher Ed about “Academic Fraud and the Academic Culture in China—and Asia.” Faculty in US universities write distraught responses to all this, detailing how many of their Asian (not just Chinese) students commit academic fraud or plagiarism. The Economist takes on academic misconduct in China.

What is going on?

Is this a moral panic—a sudden focus on a concrete episode or bit of conduct representing an outlet for more generalized anxieties, often about social change?

Is this a case of genuine cultural difference, in which ideas of authorship and educational efficacy, authority and deference, differ between nations?

Is this a case of China-bashing, of Westerners seizing upon a misdeed and generalizing, gleefully, from the tendency of a few within China to act improperly?

Is this a case of many individuals knowingly violating accepted and proper norms?

The answer to all these questions should be obvious: It depends.

I’d like to begin by reminding you that “plagiarism” has at least two meanings, one of which is inadvertently omitting citation or reference to a source (or doing so imperfectly), and the other of which is deliberately incorporating material from another’s work and passing it off as one’s own, knowing that this will mislead readers. Students are more likely to commit the former, and professionals the latter. These two types of plagiarism might be considered more appropriately “improper citation” and “deliberate plagiarism, or fraud.” These two types of misdeeds should be treated with different types of responses; the first is best addressed through education. The second perhaps should be punished, though it rarely is.

China is in the midst of a great upheaval in terms of higher education and intellectual work in general. Now second only to the US, China’s scientific research productivity is on track to be the highest in the world (see this article at the New York Times and this “Room for Debate” discussion for more on the topic). Chinese attendance in higher education has risen from about 400,000 in 1978 to almost 4.5 million in 2004 (and more since then), in large part at private, not public, institutions. Many students are trying to get through their student years however they can, knowing—or at least hoping—that their career prospects will improve if they have a degree. (Credentialism leads to fraud and corner-cutting in education everywhere.)

The number of universities and colleges in China has increased, and the number of faculty has more than quadrupled. The pressure to publish is extraordinary, and many faculty are obliging.

But they may not be writing exactly as their Western colleagues do, and nowhere is that more evident than in citation practices.

As late as the 1990s, attribution and citation were rudimentary; a seminal book might be nodded to, and the works of Marx-Lenin-Mao would be cited out of self-protection. A scholarly book might have a dozen or so citations, and rarely a bibliography. The entire scholarly apparatus that Western/US scholars take for granted was missing. Footnotes were few (See Anthony Grafton, The Footnote, 1999). There was an assumption that 1) experts would have read the same material and would be familiar with it and 2) ownership of and credit for ideas was in some sense a bourgeois relic.

The “Western” notion of academic conduct is the momentary constellation of centuries of events, from the growth of higher education to the birth of the idea of the Romantic author and individuality that stems from the Renaissance and other events. It would be possible to imagine an entirely different way of valuing contributions to teaching and researching, but we take for granted that our way is the proper way. (Many scholars of intellectual property, language, and literature/art question the possibility of originality to the extent that our intellectual property laws express, but we approximate them nonetheless.)

Of course, whether our ideas of intellectual credit are arbitrary or culturally constructed or whatever, like all social contracts (think of marriage!), we are obliged follow them. (Except when people don’t, which also happens in the West, of course.)

There is another value at play here: the goal of attaining desired ends by any means possible. I have written about the tendency to focus on the outcome of speech, its consequences, more than on its absolute value as “true” or “false” (Lies that Bind, 2007). This is evident here as well: by writing something and publishing it, good things are achieved. That the material is “someone else’s” in a certain framework is irrelevant.

In the last ten but especially five years, China has decided to “compete” with the West in terms of academic stature and value. This has entailed increasing support for higher education and increasing standards for quality, not simply increasing quantity.

But as all writers have noted, it is much easier to increase quantity than quality.

Wang Hui may have incorporated other people’s works without interrupting the text for footnotes in the 1980s, when this was standard practice. I can’t weigh in on the claim that Wang Hui’s position as a public intellectual has made him a tempting McCarthy-esque target.

But what I can say is that the times they are a-changin’ (that is a reference to Bob Dylan’s song from 1963/1964; it can be found here. But citing a popular song seems excessive, doesn’t it?). China is between several paradigms: one that says citation and attribution are optional; one that says winning is China’s or the individual’s right and imperative; and one that says intellectual work must be traced and credited.

Like all cultural change, there are winners, victims, casualties, and much righteous waving of slogans and placards, charging others with moral laxity and venal duplicity. Sometimes the accusations are apt; sometimes they are fabricated; sometimes they harbor old grudges; and sometimes those with plenty of sin cast stones.

Accusing someone of not following rules when they were not in play is absurd. Ignoring the shared rules that everyone has subsequently agreed to is a violation of convention. Scholars in China are slowly signing on, in their hearts and minds, to that slate of conventions. But like all cultural revolutions, we’ll find ambiguity and complexity enough to keep us busy analyzing for years.

Susan D. Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and the author, most recently, of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009).


Earlier this month, we ran an opinion piece by Peter Zarrow concerning the plagiarism accusations against Tsinghua University Professor Wang Hui, in which Dr. Zarrow explained why he had signed a letter of support organized by international scholars and sent to Tsinghua’s president. The essay was picked up and circulated by the MCLC listserv, where it generated a number of comments. One of the responses came from Michelle Yeh of UC Davis, and we asked Dr. Yeh if she would expand her remarks and share them with China Beat readers. She has done so in the essay below, and also provided a Chinese translation.

We welcome additional comments on this continuing matter. Short opinion pieces can be submitted by e-mail to thechinabeat[at]gmail[dot]com.

By Michelle Yeh

To be accused of plagiarism is a serious matter. To accuse someone of plagiarism is just as serious. When I catch a student plagiarize (which, unfortunately, has occurred a few times in my career), I turn the case over to the student judiciary affairs office at my university with supporting evidence. The office investigates it, holds a meeting with the student, reaches a conclusion and metes out punishment based on university policy. Although I have never personally witnessed a plagiarism case involving a professor, I would imagine that the procedure would be more or less the same. After all, we as professors not only expect our students to follow the rules, but we as tacit role models also have an obligation to do likewise.

That’s why when the plagiarism charge Professor Wang Binbin 王彬彬 initially made against Professor Wang Hui 汪晖 in March has turned into a protracted debate and controversy, I wonder what’s going on. Did the accuser present plausible evidence? If the answer is affirmative, why wasn’t it investigated right away by Tsinghua University, where Professor Wang Hui is employed? If the answer is negative, why wasn’t the case thrown out immediately, and why wasn’t Professor Wang Binbin subjected to investigation by the appropriate authority?

As a concerned observer, I read the letter signed by “more than eighty international scholars” that was submitted to the president of Tsinghua University on June 9th, as posted on Sciencenet. I also read the letter on Global Voices Online which had gone out previously to solicit “endorsements” from scholars outside mainland China. (Apparently, scholars in Hong Kong were considered “international” too, since several are among the signatories.) [Editor’s note: the solicitation letter is posted by Oiwan Lam in the comment section of the page linked to above.]

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By Susan D. Blum

In recent years, articles have appeared from time to time in the Western press that deal with cases of plagiarism in China and speculated on what these incidents may reveal about how academic life and the educational system in the PRC work.  When we learned that anthropologist Susan Blum, one of the contributors to China Beyond the Headlines, a book that was co-edited by a contributor to China Beat (Timothy Weston) and in a sense was trying to do in print form some of the things that this blog now tries to do online, has been combining writing about various aspects of Chinese culture with writing about plagiarism in the U.S. (and elsewhere), we thought it would be great to get her to reflect for us on what is and is not unusual about the situation in the PRC.  Here’s what Blum, the author of a new book called My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture as well as an earlier work on deception and truth in China, Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), had to say in response our invitation:

Plagiarism. Doesn’t the very word send chills down your spine? It resembles plague, after all (even though it has no genetic connection to it), and a plague must sicken us all. So the cases of plagiarism and academic misconduct, fraud, copying, and misrepresentation that are the latest ills to beset China make for great journalistic stories. China should, by some accounts, take its lead from the “West,” and especially from the United States.

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States too is consumed by worries about plagiarism and violations of academic integrity. But we have the sense that things are worse in China.

The whole topic of plagiarism depends on related ideas of originality. By a certain logic, developed in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an author should write original works (Woodmansee 1984, Rose 1993), and should be paid—in both money and “credit”—for that contribution, especially because the best authors were seen as geniuses, inspired by their Muse or by God. The unique work of each of these geniuses should be acknowledged. And paid.

Thus was born the notion of copyright, which is connected with but not identical to the admonition to give credit to our sources.

Academic writing, which is not always—to say the least—touched by genius, borrows from this sense that the author has made a unique contribution and should be gestured to. But it also has a professional scaffolding, the guild rules, if you will, that uses a person’s prior learning to demonstrate proper deference and training. We do that, as Anthony Grafton showed in his book The Footnote, in our footnotes. They give credit. They allow readers to pursue our line of thinking. And they show that we are following the rules.

These are the rules we teach our students and these are the rules we follow, at least when we do follow them.

In the United States college students fail to follow these rules sometimes; in surveys about 66% of our students admit to using uncited material. They do so for a variety of reasons: The rules are extremely subtle and difficult to master properly. The students are busy with a variety of other compelling activities and don’t want to take the time on a particular assignment. The assignment is meaningless to the student. The student has waited until the last minute and just needs to fill up pages, with anything. Some of these reasons may have to do with integrity and some with failed education.

But you can imagine a different notion of writing, a different path in history that does not regard writing as an individual possession. (Many of our students do, in this age of collaboration and Wikis.)

You could imagine a notion of writing where sharing was more important than hording.

You could imagine an academic system where people were hired and rewarded on the basis of contacts, seniority, and cooperation rather than publication and competition.

You could imagine a notion of education where quoting authority showed the proper deference of youth.

You could even imagine a place where a culture hero claimed “I transmit, I do not invent (or create).” (This saying is attributed to Kongzi, known as Confucius, in The Analects.)

Such a place would have a different set of rules about what is supposed to be found in footnotes and in papers, and writing in this place would not be seen as violating universal morality, but rather as following its own logic.

Until very recently, these have been some of the rules governing academic writing in China.

Now, of course, China has left behind its twentieth-century academic isolation and would like to make intellectual contributions to the global academic world. China is now producing more people with higher education degrees than the U.S. and India combined, according to the BBC.  China is investing heavily in tertiary education. China’s faculty are no longer rewarded simply for loyalty.

So new rules are evolving.

And like all social change, it is clear that it happens unevenly. Now that several Chinese universities are ranked in the top 100 in the world, and collaborations between Chinese and foreign scholars are common, Chinese universities have agreed to follow “international” notions of academic integrity, meaning that all work must declare its origins. (Never mind that there is great variation among nations in how this is regarded.) Deference has given way to the confident claims of invention.

As in any high-stakes system—the SAT, Wall Street, publication in prestigious fora—one finds some individuals willing to take enormous risks. Some are sociopaths, such as journalist Stephen Glass who fabricated an entire story in The New Republic. Some claim sloppiness, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin. Scientists wishing glory may also write fraudulent papers, such as three recent professors at Zhejiang University. He Haibo copied and fabricated results published or submitted to eight journals; two colleagues were implicated with him. China Daily called it the “biggest-ever academic scandal.”

Here we have a case with several possible explanations:

–Chinese people cheat.

–Some Chinese people cheat.

–Some people cheat.

–China follows imperfectly international guild rules about academic practices.

–China’s acceptance of the rules of academic citation are in flux and so far have been mastered imperfectly.

Which answer is preferable may depend on whether you want China to be similar to or different from people elsewhere, and whether you believe in an enduring Chinese essence.

I believe that in some sense the rules of academic conduct are arbitrary, but like any game, the players must follow the rules. Violations occur occasionally, both in the West and in Asia, and are rarely caught or punished. The American Historical Association recognized its powerlessness in enforcing rules against plagiarism in 2003, though it encouraged historians to follow and teach students about proper rules of conduct.

There are some traditional practices that may endure in China, such as having novices quote from authorities as part of their education, and there is a tendency to regard communication as effective based on the results it produces.

But there are also new forces at play in China, having to do with the way academics are compensated for speed of publication and uniqueness of contribution.

In this sense China is copying the economic structure of the Western academy. And in this sense the temptations for cutting corners in order to “scoop” everyone else or at least to pile on publications are just like ours.

In this sense, imitation may be the best form of flattery, but both the source and the copier would profit from a different model.

Sources Cited
Grafton, Anthony. 1997. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Rose, Mark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Woodmansee, Martha. 1984. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17: 425-48.

Susan D. Blum is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of the recent works Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman and Littlefield 2007) and My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press 2009).