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Academic Misconduct, The Chinese Way

The intricate connection between state power and academic authority is fertile ground for corruption in research and education. Here is one recipe to clean up the campus in China.

Nanjing University's campus
Nanjing University's campus
Zheng Ge

The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has released a bulletin disclosing a recent batch of typical academic misconduct cases in China. It was discovered last month, for example, that Yuan Zhenguo, President of National Institute of Education Sciences, had examined and approved his own as well his family members' research projects. This is the inevitable result of the insular circles of China's education and scientific research community, which has long been interfered with by administrative power.

Academic misconduct is a critical issue facing every country in the world. Nature, the prominent British journal, suggested in a 2008 article that in order to restore scientific research integrity, a "zero tolerance" policy for misconduct must be applied and a code of ethics implemented where whistleblowers are encouraged and protected.

These recommendations put scientists' and researchers' dignity and self-reliance first. They did not introduce any external party — especially political — or additional administrative supervision. This is entirely consistent with the long-established academic autonomy of Western society.

As the great 17th century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said: "Those with more power will sin more; there is no theorem in geometry more certain than this." The inevitable association between power and evil must therefore be the very premise with which a modern country designs its democracy and the rule of law: Any power must be limited and supervised, and such restrictions must be beyond the control of those who exercise power.

Autonomous academic communities and other professional communities can help set boundaries to political power. On the one hand in China, political power itself refuses such differentiation, so a separation of powers and checks and balances between governmental branches cannot be established. On the other hand, all aspects of society are entirely under the control of the political powers, including academic resources and allocations for research funding.

This political reality leads to academic misconduct with Chinese characteristics.

First, it's difficult to differentiate the allocator, applicant and user of scientific project funding. The phenomenon where a referee is also a player is not uncommon in China. Yuan Zhenguo is just one recent case.

Student roots

To prevent academic misconduct, conflicts of interests must first be avoided. In the scientific research field there exist interest relations between funder and researchers, researchers and users of research results, and even between the public and private roles of the researchers. All these interests must be clarified and separated. The interference of the administrative power for education and scientific research as well as the lack of effective supervision of these powers have hampered the rules for preventing conflicts of interest in China's academic sphere.

In addition, in organizational psychology there is a basic principle: People are more inclined to obey rules they helped establish, rather than those imposed on them. All stakeholders — including teachers, students and educational administrators — should be involved in the formulation of the rules related to academic integrity.

However, in China, education and research institutions are attached to the "administrative authorities," so that an academic community cannot be developed — let alone its autonomy and self-regulatory mechanisms. Were an academic community to exist, the members of this community would understand that any misconduct damages the entire community's reputation, so it would be every member's moral duty and in their own self-interest to denounce any known misconduct. Loosening rather than strengthening government control is the prerequisite for forming the self-discipline of an academic community.

Moreover, we must remember that teachers and researchers were once students. The cultivation of ethics at the student level determines the future of the entire academic ethical environment. Struck from both sides by administrative power and by market forces, Chinese universities do not possess enough autonomous strength to create stringent ethical standards on campus.

University teachers and researchers are not necessarily better or worse than ordinary workers when it comes to moral standards. But they are generally more rational, and more capable of attaining advantages that are in their interest. A large number of studies have shown that environmental factors account for more than individual differences in determining researchers' ethical choices. Specifically speaking, rather than abstract rules and moralizing, it is the example of seeing one's peers obtain honor for their integrity or be punished for ethical shortcomings that will play the decisive role in scholars' personal choices.

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