Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Revival of Kowtow

In ancient China, the ultimate respect to one's superior is demonstrated by the protocol of Kowtow (磕头), whereupon one kneels down in front of the superior so that his feet, knees, and hands are all on the ground. He then touches his forehead to the ground multiple times. In extreme cases, how loud one can make the noise by smashing his forehead to the ground is a measurement of his respect, leading to many injuries. The practice was rigorously carried out by generations when men meet the emperors, parents/grandparents, and teachers.

Thankfully, this notorious protocol, along with many others, were abolished during the 1911 revolution and the subsequent modernization of China.

But things are changing these days and not all is for the better. Last Fall, hundreds of students practicing the "Crazy English" staged a public kowtow demonstration to thank their teacher.

Even more bizarre, though, is a display last week on the official television station, CCTV, in which a university professor performed a genuine kowtow to express his appreciation of his old teacher:

The one who did the kowtow is Qian WenZhong (钱文忠), a forty-one year old Professor of History at Fudan University. Qian is supposed to be the last student of Ji Xianlin (季羡林), the receiver of the kowtow. Professor Ji is close to 100 years old. He had spent his career, most of which in Peking University, studying ancient languages such as Sanskrit, as well as the religious and history aspects associated with the language.

In more recent years, Ji somehow gained the public title of a Master of Chinese Scholarship (国学大师) and became the figurehead of everything traditional Chinese. It's one thing to pay due respect to such a senior scholar. But do we need to go so far as to kowtow?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Statute of Limitation on Plagiarism?

The plagiarism case of the new Academician Xie Huaan is getting some public attention. In an article in favor of Xie, the official People's Daily reported a little inside story of how his candidacy was approved by the Chinese Academy of Science.

After receiving reports of Xie's plagiarism, the CAS dispatched a group of three Academicians to Xie's institute for investigation. Their findings were reported to a general meeting of Academicians. The details were not disclosed but it appears that the facts of plagiarism was not in dispute. Fang Rongxian (方荣祥), who headed the investigation group, was quoted saying "there was a heated debate" after the report.

While some Academicians held the opinion that plagiarism should automatically disqualify Xie's candidacy, others disagreed. They pointed to the fact that Xie's plagiarism happened 10 years ago, when "there was no clear-cut regulations on academic integrity in China, especially in the requirement of citing references". Xie's act was not appropriate in today's perspective, but was understandable at that time.

Xie was able to garner more than 2/3 of approval votes from Academicians and thus became one himself.

One had to wonder, in the eyes of those more than 2/3 Academicians, when was a clear-cut regulation on academic integrity in China established? Or what kind of statute of limitation is in practice in today's China?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Is There a Cultural Perspective in Plagiarism?

The popular post of Professor Stearns' open letter continues to receive active comments. They are all appreciated. In one of them, anonymous asked:

Has anyone looked at this issue from a cultural perspective? I mean, have you spoken with experts in the academic expectations in countries that might do things differently than done in the US?

Why do Americans always come across so arrogantly - as if the way we do things is the only way... As an ESL instructor, I have come across this issue many times before. One explanation is to consider the differences between assignment expectations - In the US, there is heavy focus put on individual ideas and contributions along with assigning credit to ideas in papers of others. In other cultures, this emphasis on the individual and individual ideas is not as stressed. For students, the goal may be to simply integrate the ideas of others to show professors that there is an understanding of the ideas in a certain field. There is no need to cite where all the ideas come from because the goal of the assignment is not to show individual achievement (look at all these great ideas I thought of or was able to explain) but, I have a good general understanding of the important points of a topic. It is understood that the ideas are not the student's ideas, simply because he/she is a student. Students are not saying that the ideas in the paper are their own ideas... again a Western perspective - the promotion of th eindividual.. Now this would be very different when later in their careers, as they publish in journals, scientists are putting in work that is not their own... but if I understand correctly, you are talking about students... Take a moment to consider that perhaps the circumstances and goals of an assignment may be very culturally different from the Western view..
Nowadays, we are taught to respect other cultures, so much so that we see things we don't approve being done by people that are not "us", we have to tell us to be nice and regard that as their "culture". There must be a culture perspective for them to do such things! But really, this is not the way to respect other cultures. Quite the opposite, this kind of thinking diminishes other cultures as the refuge of immoral behaviors.

It is therefore very fortunate for us to have Fang Zhouzi spearheading this fraud busting campaign. He is as "Chinese-cultured" as anyone I am aware of. Apart of his work in fraud-busting and populating science, he is also (or have been) a proficient writer of poems and essays on Chinese history and culture. In fact, New Thread was originally founded as a ivory-tower-ish refuge for Chinese literature, history, and philosophy discussions.

In this sense, Fang and his supporters are not only defending the integrity of the academic China, but also the integrity of Chinese culture.

As we continue to see in this Blog, plagiarism is certainly not limited to a few students who did not know better. But far from it, it involves numerous professors, some of which had achieved remarkable status as Academicians. We would certainly hope that they did not represent Chinese culture for the rest of us.

In Professor Stearns' particular case, he did not jump out and accuse his students of plagiarism the first time he saw it either. He had lectured his class on this particular issue. He had given his students second and third chances to correct their "mistakes". It was only after such repeated efforts and warnings, when he still received blatant plagiarized papers, he wrote the open letter. His students may have other excuses, but ignorance of the issue is not one of them.

Far from being arrogant, Professor Stearns was courageous enough to see through any perceived culture veils and tell things as they are. This blog, for one, is glad that he did.

Together, Fang Zhouzi and Steve Stearns are showing the world that there are indeed universal values and norms, not just Western or Eastern views. We are all humans, after all.

Does Xie Huaan Qualify to be an Academician?

Every two years, the Chinese Academy of Science admits a new batch of Academicians, a pinnacle of personal achievements for those selected. On December 27, 2007, CAS announced its latest batch: 29 were admitted from 287 candidates.

It's the smallest number in years. CAS has a ceiling of 60. During the years of 2001, 2003, and 2005, CAS had admitted totals of 56, 58, and 51, respectively. This year's 29 is a very substantial drop-off. Either the CAS is tightening its standards, or the remaining talent pool is shrinking in an alarming rate, or both.

Nevertheless, in today's atmosphere of China's academy, it did not take long for these new Academicians to become targets of fraud-busting at New Thread. The first name to be reported is Xie Huaan (谢华安).

Xie gained the honor on the strength of his cultivating and popularizing a new kind of hybrid rice. His achievement here is not in dispute. But was it enough for him to become a CAS Academician?

A few years ago, the pioneer of China's hybrid rice research, Yuan Longping (袁隆平), who had far bigger achievements than Xie had tried and failed to gain a CAS Academician after several tries. The argument was that such research was more of a technological breakthrough, rather than scientific one. So, Yuan settled with an Academician position of the Chinese Academy of Engineering instead, a position that is regarded as far less prestigious and lower standard. There are also other such examples of candidates who had failed at CAS and settled in with the CAE.

However, Xie Huaan was the first person who had gone the opposite route. He had failed to gain an Academician position within the CAE for several years and turned in his application to CAS this time. And he made it in one-shot.

Well, that by itself is not such a big deal. Maybe the CAS saw something in Xie the CAE did not see. But much more damaging for Xie is that, he is reported as a plagiarist.

Although successfully innovated his kind of hybrid rice, Xie does not have a lot of publications of his own. Perhaps realizing his shortcomings, Xie published a journal article and a book recently. The problem is that the article was a summary of three papers published by others. According to Fang Zhouzi, who had looked at the papers, Xie's article "is not even a review, but only a studying notes" of others' work. In the article, Xie included data and materials from the original papers but never cited his sources.

"It's an obvious case of plagiarism" said Fang Zhouzi.

What about the book? It turns out the book was the work of a team of people who had worked for Xie. They wrote up the book as a collective effort, only to see it published with Xie as the sole author.

The real puzzle is that, before CAS made its decision, Xie's fraud has been duly reported to CAS. CAS claimed that it had conducted its investigations (but did not bother to publish its findings). Somehow, Xie Huaan was still elected as an Academician.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fang Zhouzi Looks at 2007 and the Year Ahead

In a recent question and answer session with a reporter, Fang Zhouzi outlined a few thoughts of the year just past and ahead:

Q: During the year 2007, what event in China did you concern the most and why?

A: My biggest concern was how the new Office for Scientific Integrity (科研诚信建设办公室) within the Ministry of Science and Technology had been coming about. The establishment of this Office was announced at the beginning of 2007 to accept reports on scientific fraud and organize investigation and disciplinary actions. But as soon as that announcement came out, the Office had disappeared from the media. We haven't seen any action from that Office for an entire year... ...

Q: During the year 2007, which person did you concern the most?

A: I always concern with only the cases, not the individuals. So I did not pay special attention to any person. It would probably not a good thing for anyone to get my concern anyway.

Q: Looking back 2007, what did you and your New Thread achieve?

A: This has been a most productive year for myself. I published four new books and they are all selling very well. I also revised and published new editions of two old books. These books used up the material I have accumulated through the years, so going forward, I probably would not be as productive. This year, I also had the most opportunity in delivering speeches in colleges and on TV... ... During 2007, New Thread continued to focus on the corruption cases in China's academia. We exposed about the same number of frauds as in 2006. But during 2006, we were able to see a few of the major cases resulted in official disciplinary actions. In 2007, we did not have such luck. It seems that the media did not pay as much attention to academic corruption as in 2006.

Q: Looking ahead of 2008, what are you hopes in debunking academic fraud in China?

I hope the media will continue to pay attention to this phenomenon and do not sway when it's no longer a hot spot. It's very important to have media watchdog in stopping the frauds. One site can not do it alone. We need the cooperation of all media. We also need the official institutes to investigate and discipline. I hope the Ministries of Science and Technology and Education, the Chinese Academy of Science, and all universities and institutes to actually act upon these issues in 2008, so we all can have more confidence in China's academia.

Q: In 2008, what are your plans in your personal writing?

A: I will continue to write columns for China Youth (中国青年报) and other newspapers. I plan to publish at least two new books. One is a handbook of scientific practices in health; another is about rules and regulations in academic practice. I also will have another book published in Taiwan.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Another Victim Speaks Up

Another victim of the abusive Professor Ai Yuncan speaks up today, with his real name Wang Kai (汪凯). It's the first one who did not use anonymity or a pseudonym. In 2003, Wang was a graduate student for a Master degree with Ai. Ai intended Wang to study for Ph. D. instead. But due to his parents' illness and financial difficulty, Wang was intending to graduate with just a Master. This decision did not bode well with Ai.

In his letter to New Threads, Wang detailed the long and miserable abuses he had to suffer subsequently. Professor Ai claimed his work was worthless and refused to allow him to graduate. Neither was he allowed to do real work in the lab. What's more, Professor Ai rejected Wang's many attempts to apologize and reconcile. Ai claimed that Wang's parents should be held responsible for Wang's "immaturity". Therefore, Wang's sick parents had to travel to school and personally apologize to the professor. Wang's father was literally down to his knees, although Professor Ai did stop him at the last minute.

After Wang finally graduated and left, his work, claimed to be worthless by Professor Ai, was published by Ai in the Proceedings of Sun Yet-sen University. Both Wang Kai and Ai Yuncan were among the authors. But neither was the first author.

The first author was Meng Fanmei (孟繁梅) -- Ai Yuncan's wife.

A Newspaper in Yunnan Follows Up on Wang Rui

The fraud case of Wang Rui has been exposed for a while, but there is still no official response or action from his school. But thankfully, a small local newspaper 春城晚报 is not giving up. It published an article yesterday documenting its reporter's efforts in uncovering Wang's dirty trail. By now, the reporter was able to contact most of the real authors of papers Wang Rui had cited as his own. These authors faxed testimonies and angry reactions to Wang's claim.

However, there is also evidence that Wang's threat of lawsuit may not be an empty one after all. Professor Chen-Loung Chen at NC State told the reporter that he had received a letter from someone claiming to be Wang Rui's wife, warning him not to get involved since they have begun legal proceedings.

More Plagiarism at Fudan University

Looks like there will be more news from Fudan University. On the heels of its much publicized disciplinary actions, more plagiarism cases are being exposed. An anonymous author wrote to New Threads that a textbook by Professor Kong Aiguo (孔爱国), was entirely translated from David Luenberger's Investment Science.

Kong's book was first published in China in 2003, before Luenberger's book was introduced in China. To his credit, Kong stated in the foreword of his book that the material of his book came from lecture notes and his lecture notes came from current lectures from abroad, especially Luenberger's Investment Science.

But Kong's book did not just take the material from Luenberger. The book was actually a chapter-by-chapter translation of Luenberger's book, except that Kong omitted the original Chapters 5 and 11.

Meanwhile, Luenberger's book had also been independently translated and published in China in 2005.

There is also evidence on the internet that Professor Kong had coauthored an earlier textbook that was also plagiarized from Economic Growth.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

An Abusive Professor in Guangzhou

The day after the New Year, an anonymous letter, with a pseudonym Broken-Heart Ph. D. (伤心博士), was posted in an internet forum in China. The post has an astounding title, begging a professor "Would you Please Not to Abuse People Anymore?". The post was immediately carried in many other online forums, including New Thread, and received much heated discussions everywhere.

The author of the post is purported to be one of the suffering graduate students of Ai Yuncan (艾云灿), a microbiology professor at Sun Yet-Sen University (中山大学) in Guangzhou. In tearing language, the letter described Professor Ai as extremely abusive, verbally and sometimes physically, towards his graduate students. The article also provided a list of 13 Ph. D. students who had come to Ai's lab since 2004. They were described as either left without a degree or trapped in a limbo in the lab.

The author of the post also claimed in possession of a record of Professor Ai's verbal abuse. The record was not posted due its large size. While begging for the professor to stop his abusive behavior, the author wish to warn any students who are considering of applying for the lab.

Afer New Thread carried the post, it received another letter from someone claiming to be a student of Professor Ai's. This new author claimed to be the first student of Ai's who had fought back the abuse and successfully changed adviser within the school. It also included a few more of Ai's victims: students dated back to 1998. In this new article, the author encouraged Ai's current students to stop being victims, fight back and seek help from authorities.

To its credit, Sun Yet-Sen University appears to be responding rather quickly. It already posted a notice in the school web site stating that an investigation group has been formed to look into this matter. The group's initial findings are that although some details in the original post are unfounded, the problems are not entirely baseless. The group claims that Professor Ai is a diligent and strict scientist, who is under tremendous pressure of executing several big research projects. It is due to his lack of people skills that Professor Ai had resorted to crude treatment to some of his students. The group also indicated that Professor Ai has recognized his wrong-doings and apologized to his students.

It's not clear whether any further actions will be taken.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hao Bolin Criticizes CAS Leadership on Ethics

A renown and outspoken theoretical physicist Hao Bolin (郝柏林) has published a speech in his own blog criticizing a leadership figure in Chinese Academy of Science for unethical behavior. According to his note, the speech was prepared for a meeting of the Committee for the Construction of Scientific Ethics (科学道德建设委员会) of the CAS. The meeting was held in early November. Hao was not able to attend himself but submitted his speech in written form. He later learned that the Committee had decided that his speech "deserves much further study" and was not published during or after the meeting.

Since two months have past and his speech was still "under study", Hao decided to publish it on his own in his Blog. You can also see the speech (in Chinese) at New Thread.

In the speech, Hao made it clear that he was not satisfied with the previous investigation work on ethics which, in his opinion, had only touched "small flies", while unethical behavior came from the very top of the CAS leadership. He singled out the practice of officers signing their names on research papers that they had not contributed or even read.

"The higher an officer's rank is, the more papers he publishes per year. That is a general phenomenon today," lamented Hao in the speech. To prove his point, he listed the number of papers apparently authored by a top leader of the CAS from 1985 to 2004. It showed a steady uptrend, coinciding to the author's rise in the ranks of CAS leadership. During 2003, the latest year Hao has the complete data, the author published 51 papers in SCI journals, approximately one per week!

Although Hao did not mention the leader by name, Fang Zhouzi revealed that Hao's target is Bai Chunli (白春礼), a physical chemist and Vice President of the CAS.