In quest of an antidote for academic corruption

Updated: 2012-11-09 10:04

By Susan D. Blum (China Daily)

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Integrity and respect for knowledge trump coercion and cash rewards

I recently had the privilege of appearing on China Radio International to discuss the problem of Chinese academic corruption and the new Ministry of Education guidelines designed to combat them. Among the profound questions we looked at - Is this in fact a problem? Is it worse in China than elsewhere? Who is responsible? - was one about the causes of what we agreed are huge, sudden increases in academic corruption. Are the principal causes associated with social and economic structures, or they primarily cultural?

Structural reasons include the sources of funding: because the government remains the principal source of funding for institutions of higher education, they are forced to compete with each other on the basis of rubrics, including the number of publications of their faculty. International rankings similarly depend on publications. All this leads to a temptation to inflate the number of publications, sometimes by repeat publications (a violation of international academic ethics), copying the work of others, fabricating research findings, including scientific data, and more.

Other structural reasons include the recent "massification" of higher education, the sudden and spectacular increase in the numbers of people involved in this world, both as students and as faculty. From a participation rate of about 3 percent just 20 years ago, about a quarter of Chinese youth are now in higher education. Chinese higher education involves more students (30 million) than any other country's system.

Cultural reasons for academic corruption include a general atmosphere of corruption, ideas about authorship, the role of students and subordinates, ideas of success and pedagogy, and the place of originality. Among these reasons we would want to explore the basic expectations for what the role of students should be in generating new scholarship, at what level of education, and whether earlier levels of schooling teach students obedience and recitation of authoritative sources or whether creativity is inculcated from the start.

How we assess the relative importance of structural causes in contrast to cultural ones would influence the approach taken to the rule of law in contrast to rule by law. The new policies aim to influence from the top down. Other approaches contrast the incorporation of standards to fear of punishment.

How can these undesirable practices be deterred? Who is responsible, and at what moment, for preventing students from copying? Should their academic advisers be held accountable? The new guidelines suggest so.

If the goal of scholarship is to get published, rather than to contribute in a meaningful and substantial way to the growth of knowledge, then any method is acceptable. Academic life is not usually so lucrative that people enter it to get wealthy. Usually people have some drive to know and learn.

My suggestion, writing as an outsider who has been studying Chinese society and culture for more than 30 years, is to foster appreciation at every level for contributing to shared knowledge, while recognizing the competitive aspects of a zero-sum scramble for limited funds and honors. This is hard to accomplish and will never be perfect.

Laws from above, financial rewards, promotions, and grades, which psychologists call extrinsic motivations, cannot truly transform the ways academic writers and aspiring student researchers conduct their work.

The 17th-century Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was so taken by his search for the true meaning of the cosmos that he was willing to risk the full ire of the medieval Catholic Church. Most academics are less courageous and less creative than that, but I cite this example to show that structures of reward cannot possibly be the sole mover of academic action.

Instead, the motivations must be at least partially intrinsic, coming from inside the researcher.

When so much of the writer must be bestowed on the work, as must be the case in producing academic research, simply avoiding severe punishment cannot be the primary motivation. The goals must first be a thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn and share the learning, and - though it sounds innocent and even naive in these cynical times - a quest for truth. Producing degrees and publishing laboratory results, cannot possibly be the same as producing a cheaper trash can. The standards must be both internal and external.

Until this has been accomplished through a combination of structural and cultural changes, the fight against misconduct and corruption will remain with us.

The author is professor and chair of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page9)