Plagiarism Hinders China's Scientific Ambition China is forecast to become the world's leading innovator this year, overtaking the U.S. and Japan in number of patent filings. But scientific fraud scandals bedevil the country's reputation as an innovator, and many say aspects of traditional Chinese culture may be partly to blame

Plagiarism Plague Hinders China's Scientific Ambition

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Hacking accusations aside, China is forecast to become the world's leading innovator this year. It will overtake the U.S. and Japan to lead the world in patent filings. More scientific papers come out of China than any other country but the U.S. But China is struggling to recover its reputation after repeated scandals over scientific fraud. Here's the final story in our series on China and technology, from NPR's Louisa Lim.

LOUISA LIM: Helen Zhang has had a dream for a decade: to run an international scientific journal that meets international standards. So she was delighted to be appointed journal director for Zhejiang University. When her scientific journal became the first in China to use cross-check software to spot plagiarism, she was pleased to be a trailblazer. But when the first set of results came in, she was upset and horrified.

HELEN ZHANG: In almost two years, we find about 31 percent of papers with unreasonable copy and plagiarism. This is true.

LIM: Yes, 31 percent - almost a third of papers were plagiarized. For computer science and life science papers, that went up to almost 40 percent. When Zhang published these findings, she was criticized for bringing shame on Chinese scientists, even though she'd emphasized many of the papers were from overseas. She partly blames traditional Chinese culture, which holds that copying a teacher's work is a way of learning. Zhao Yan, from Sciencenet, says some argue that Chinese culture is holding back innovation.

ZHAO YAN: (through translator) Chinese culture has weaknesses which hinder innovation, such as being afraid to criticize, being afraid to show personality or think independently. These are big hindrances to the establishment of a scientific culture.

LIM: In a quiet office building, Zhao Yan's running the world's biggest online science community. Sciencenet is just four years old, but it gets half a million hits a day. This website offers scientists a platform for open debate and blogging. Along the way, it's been used by scientists to expose plagiarism and fraud scandals. Zhao Yan hopes it will change the face of Chinese science.

Despite the outpouring of Chinese papers, Chinese research isn't that influential globally. Thomson Reuter's Science Watch finds China isn't even in the top 20 when measuring citations per paper. Zhao Yan says Chinese research is still about quantity rather than quality.

ZHAO YAN: (through translator) If you are only publishing lots of garbage research, then it doesn't have any meaning. Now we only see the quantity. But scientific research only cares about quality.

LIM: There's another explanation behind this plague of plagiarism: money. Chinese academics get bonuses and promotions according to how much they publish. The necessity of being published has led to some high-profile scandals. For example, one international crystallography journal has retracted 120 papers from Chinese scientists for errors - 70 from one university alone. And Wang Lingyun has yet another explanation: political hierarchy. A philosopher from Yunnan University, he's a victim of plagiarism. His work was stolen and reproduced in one of China's top philosophical journals.

WANG LINGYUN: (through translator) China is still a society of official standard thought. Everything is run by officials, and a higher-rank official can crush a lower rank. Many academics who commit plagiarism are also officials, so they're seldom held responsible. Words from people of a lower rank mean little.

LIM: Now, there's a danger that China's best and brightest are being scared away. This year, the four youngsters with the highest marks in Beijing's high school graduation exam all chose to study in Hong Kong, where the system is more open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So condition here is more...

LIM: At Beijing's Number Four High School - a hothouse for the very brightest - students debate in English at a model United Nations. Many are planning to study overseas, like 16-year-old wannabe rocket scientist Katherine Lee; and 17-year old Peter Tang, who wants to major in math and business.

KATHERINE LEE: I am sure that I will study abroad, but I will come back to build my country because China is still developing. The most things we need is science and scientists, so we must come back.

PETER TANG: I will go abroad.

LIM: What's your dream, to study in which university?

TANG: Maybe Harvard, Williams College and MIT.

LIM: I mean, do you feel that they have something to offer that Chinese universities do not?

TANG: Maybe they're freer in the field of studying, yeah. We have more opportunities in such open surroundings. I need more freedom. I need to be more free.


CHEN DUXIU: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: More than 90 years ago, a leading Chinese intellectual, Chen Duxiu, linked science and democracy. He nicknamed them Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy, saying only these two could save China from political, moral, academic and intellectual darkness. Nowadays, China's lavishing money on Mr. Science. But without the checks and balances provided by Mr. Democracy, the corruption plaguing the rest of the system is infecting the reputation of Chinese science. However, China's leaders have committed to fighting scientific fraud. And Helen Zhang, at her journal, says one year on, plagiarism has fallen dramatically - to 24 percent of all submissions.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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