Is China's rash of plagiarism a deeply rooted cultural issue?

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A new column on Chinese science culture from the JUN/JUL 2006 issue of Seed:

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When the Chinese government recently announced plans to root out academic plagiarism and blacklist offending scholars, it was, on the surface, simply a matter of ethical standards keeping pace with economic reforms. The past few years have seen a wave of highly publicized falsification and plagiarism scandals all over the world, and Chinese scientists, under mounting pressure to publish, were guilty of a number of abuses. Most famously, research performed by Sichuan University biomedical scientist Qiu Xiaoqing and reported in Nature Biotechnology in 2003 was exposed as false, with the ensuing debacle splashed across the pages of Science.

Beneath the surface, however, the recurring plagiarism scandals here are a sticky cultural controversy. In a country where everything—from designer handbags to DVDs to fruit (Shanghai’s vendors carry oranges labeled “Nalencia”)—is copied, pilfering has become a loaded issue. The China Daily, which broke the clean-up plagiarism campaign story, is itself routinely accused of plagiarism.

The foreign press, covering the Chinese academy’s woes, has focused on the country’s “culture of copying,” suggesting that Chinese scholarship, with its emphasis on memorization, mimicry and deference for authority, encourages plagiarism. A recent Knight-Ridder article quoted a Chinese graduate student as saying that scholars perceive plagiarism as a compliment; a few weeks later the Boston Globe quoted an American professor living in China as suggesting that plagiarism is ingrained in contemporary Chinese culture.

Chris Chi-Chiang Shei, a Taiwanese lecturer at the University of Wales Swansea, is among a group of British scholars who advocate “easternizing” academia by promoting cooperative use of certain types of knowledge. Chiang said that while plagiarism is by no means acceptable in Chinese culture, different values do come to bear. Scholarship is often seen as “common property,” he says.
But this collective approach to scholarship conflicts with the notoriously cutthroat atmosphere of contemporary Chinese science. An emphasis on the quantity, rather than quality, of papers may be contributing to the increased incidence of plagiarism, says Liu Yameng, a professor at China’s Fujian Normal University. Yameng has devoted himself to the study of comparative rhetoric, with a focus on how Chinese modes of expression differ from Western ones. “No Chinese scholar I know of would feel pleased to see themselves plagiarized,” he says. “To have others cite you is one thing. To have the authorship of your ideas and thoughts usurped is quite another.”

With each new scandal, the Chinese academy suffers doubly by losing credibility as a whole, and enduring the implication that the problem stems from cultural issues, and may not be easily remedied.

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Originally published May 16, 2006

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