At Peking University, allegations of plagiarism fly

At Yale, plagiarizing a paper lands a student in front of the Executive Committee, which can hand down punishments as stringent as expulsion. But according to a University professor who taught at Peking University this fall, at the Beijing school, the same offence seems to go unpunished.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor Stephen C. Stearns ’67 sent a passionate, 958-word e-mail to his students at PKU last month, bemoaning the rampant cheating he witnessed while teaching two courses at the university as part of a joint program between Yale and the school. In his message, Stearns said he was “leaving with very mixed feelings” because of the behavior he observed while in China, raising questions about the academic integrity of an institution that is a central partner in Yale’s internationalization efforts.

“The fact that I have encountered this much plagiarism … tells me something about the behavior of other professors and administrators here,” Stearns wrote. “They must tolerate a lot of it, and when they detect it, they cover it up without serious punishment, probably because they do not want to lose face. If they did punish it, it would not be this frequent.”

Launched in 2006, the Peking University–Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program allows Yale students to spend a semester living and studying with Peking University students on the school’s Beijing campus. Through the program, Yale students take classes in English with Peking University and Yale faculty and receive full course credit at Yale.

Stearns’ e-mail raises questions about whether Peking University’s courses are as rigorous as Yale’s.

Allegations of plagiarism at Yale nearly always result in a hearing before the Executive Committee, the College’s student disciplinary body. Students found guilty typically face probation, suspension or expulsion, assistant Yale College Dean and Executive Committee Secretary Jill Cutler told the News in September.

In a recent e-mail message to the News, Stearns said he has been inundated with more than 100 e-mails from China and beyond regarding his message, which he said was originally intended as advice for his students at Peking, not for a wider audience.

His missive has since been posted in English and in Chinese on several Chinese Web sites and was the subject of a report on the Web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education last month. Stearns said he allowed his students to post the message online because they thought it would be helpful to students elsewhere.

In his e-mail, Stearns said three students in his courses this fall received failing grades for plagiarism. Rampant academic dishonesty “fits into a larger pattern of behavior in China” that includes widespread sale of pirated DVDs and a disregard for international intellectual property standards, he added.

Stearns said in the e-mail that one Peking University sociology professor who copied an entire book into Chinese and published it in his own name did not lose his job when he was caught.

“China ignores international intellectual property rights,” Stearns said. “[Peking University] sees nothing wrong in copying my textbook, for example, in complete violation of international copyright agreements, causing me to lose income, stealing from me quite directly. No one in China seems to care.”

In a message circulated at Peking University, the dean of the College of Life Sciences at Peking, Yi Rao, vowed that any faculty member he has hired since assuming his position would be fired if found to have been academically dishonest.

“We do encounter many problems,” Rao said in his message, “but it is the hope for an increasingly better future that keeps us working to improve the university, to make it great in one day when it contributes more to the world than it takes from the world.”

“We will regain our long-held tradition of honesty and trust,” he added.

Stearns, meanwhile, said he met with senior administrators at Peking before returning to the United States last month and was assured the university would take his feedback to heart.

“They told me that they took plagiarism very seriously and are going to work actively to reduce it,” he said, adding, “Their stance is constructive and gives hope.”

University President Richard Levin said in an interview on Sunday that intellectuals in China seem to agree that plagiarism is a concern that the country’s top universities need to contend with. Stearns’ e-mail, Levin said, spoke of an issue that officials at Peking and other universities are in the process of addressing — strengthening their compliance with academic norms.

“I don’t think this is in any way has impaired our relationship with Peking University,” Levin said.

In fact, Levin added, Stearns’ e-mail “is a good demonstration of what academic freedom is all about.”

But the professor is not the only one to raise questions about academic integrity at Peking University. In an e-mail message, Liam Leonard ’09, who studied abroad through the Peking program last spring, said the university had a more relaxed attitude toward plagiarism than Yale.

Leonard said students at Peking operate under double standards, with some professors reportedly easing requirements for Chinese students forced to write their papers in English.

“Often times block quotes are taken from various Web sites and pasted into their academic papers with no citations at all,” Leonard explained. “Plagiarism to the degree that I saw it in China would result in expulsions in the U.S.”

Another student, a Yale senior who asked to remain anonymous, said he and another Yalie who participated in the program last spring both witnessed overt acts of plagiarism while at Peking.

“All of [the Yale students at Peking] both witnessed and heard about … acts of plagiarism,” said the senior. “We had Chinese partners in many of our classes who would take excerpts from books without notating them or changing them in any way.”

Copying and pasting from Internet sources was also common, the student said. Students were never told they could not lift material word-for-word and present it as their own, the student said.

Academic corruption is widespread across China, according to experts on higher education in China. Fang Shi-min, a Chinese molecular biologist and de facto plagiarism watchdog, told the Chronicle last year that he has tracked nearly 500 cases of plagiarism and other forms of misconduct at the country’s leading universities, which he chronicles on a Web site devoted to the subject. And last year, more than 100 top academics across the country signed an open letter urging Chinese officials to crack down on academic corruption.

“Even when a case is exposed,” Fang told the Chronicle, “the university will usually try to cover it up — particularly when the accused is a big shot — to protect the fame and gain of the university.”

Peking University, sometimes called “the Harvard of China,” has a student body of about 30,000, including 15,000 undergraduates. It is also a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities, the 10-school consortium of which Yale was a founding member.

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