Wednesday, July 28, 2010

USA Today: Plagiarism Shuts Down US School in China

USA Today reported today that a "plagiarism epidemic" has forced Centenary College to discontinue an MBA program in China. According to the paper:

"The college is extremely concerned with the welfare of the Chinese students involved in the program, but must note that its review revealed evidence of widespread plagiarism among other issues, at a level that ordinarily would have resulted in students' immediate dismissal from the college," Debra Albanese, Centenary's vice president for strategic advancement, said in a statement. "Despite that, in an effort to afford students every fair possibility, the college has opted to attempt to reach an amicable solution, in lieu of any such dismissal. The students were offered a choice to receive a tuition refund in exchange for a standard release in higher education or take a comprehensive exam in order to earn a degree."

It went on to say that all but two of about 400 students have accepted a refund.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A "Success" that Could be Easily Replicated

Followers of this blog are well aware that Fang Zhouzi has been a lonely crusader in exposing scientific fraud and misconduct for over a decade. Although there had been a few cases that gained wide publicity, much of his efforts remain unknown to the general public. It is therefore somewhat ironic that it was when he occasionally wandered out of the ivory tower settings that he achieved an usually fame.

It all started with an innocent comment on the Chinese-version of twitters. When answering a question from a follower, Fang Zhouzi casually mentioned that he had been aware that the diplomatic credentials of a famous individual are most likely faked. All of a sudden, the Chinese twitter world exploded and the "news" flooded into traditional news media. In a matter of days, it became the top news in China.

The famous individual in question is Tang Jun (唐骏), a purported self-motivator who had achieved huge success in business world through his own unrelenting efforts. Tang Jun boasts an enviable resume, including the chief executive in China for Microsoft and several successful startups. Several books about his story, including a couple of his autobiography, are best sellers and he is a well-sort motivational speaker in universities and colleges. Indeed, Tang Jun is an idol for China's youth. One of his autobiographies is titled as My Success Can Be Replicated.

In various versions of his books and speeches, Tang Jun describes his experience as having earned a bachelor degree in China, a master in Japan, and a Ph.D. in USA, all while producing several inventions and starting up a few companies.

It was that Ph.D. degree in USA that caught Fang Zhouzi's eyes first. More than a year ago, in fact, Fang Zhouzi had already pointed out that Tang Jun's story could not be consistent with facts. In his online resume, Tang Jun claimed that he left Japan to pursue research in the famed California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and then "earned a Ph.D. degree." Fang Zhouzi searched the Cal Tech database and could not find any record of Tang Jun, either as a degree recipient or an author of any published research work. Fang Zhouzi concluded that Tang Jun had lied about his degree.

After the Chinese twitter storm, Tang Jun went through several phases in his defense. He first accused Fang Zhouzi as having ulterior motives and unworthy of responding. Then he claimed that he has been misquoted in his own autobiography and that he had never implied that his Ph.D. was from Cal Tech. Finally, as most who had been exposed by Fang Zhouzi, Tang Jun threatened to sue in courts.

The story quickly takes another turn. After "clarifying" that his degree was not from CalTech, Tang Jun produced a certificate indicating that he indeed has a Ph.D. degree and it was from Pacific Western University in California.

Pacific Western University, Fang Zhouzi quickly pointed out, is a well-known "diploma mill" in the US that has been the target of various governmental and consumer complains. Such a degree certificate could be readily obtained for a fee of over $2,000 USD. Furthermore, Fang Zhouzi and his supporters provided evidence that Tang Jun's claim on his inventions and other achievements are likely to be baseless. "80% of his autobiography could be made-up," Fang Zhouzi told a newspaper.

Tang Jun insists that his degree is genuine. But he has since toned down his public defense and threats. Meanwhile, the story continues to spread, with more and more Pacific Western University degree holders are discovered, some of them occupy prominent positions in business as well as academic worlds in China. There appears to be already a flurry of activities in revising online resumes and pages to remove such degrees, while others argue that their PWU degree was earned through studying programs.

The media circus caught Fang Zhouzi himself by surprise. He hopes that he could soon return to his beloved work of writing scientific essays and paying attention more in academia rather than business world.

Foreign Policy: Who Tried to Kill Fang Xuanchang?

The following is a dispatch by Foreign Policy on July 6, 2010:

Who Tried to Kill Fang Xuanchang?
A chilling attack on a controversial science journalist in Beijing bodes poorly for scientific progress.


On the evening of June 24, Fang Xuanchang, a 37-year-old science and technology editor at China's Caijing magazine, finished work around 10 p.m. and began his walk home. Half an hour later he was nearing his apartment by Beijing's third ring road when he felt a sudden blow to his back. Fang turned to see two large men behind him brandishing steel bars.

Fang tried to run away and then shield himself as the men, ignoring his attempts to communicate with them, struck him repeatedly across his back and head. Brawny and adept in martial arts, Fang not only remained conscious, but also managed to fight back. Finally, as Fang stumbled toward a taxi, his clothes soaked in blood, the attackers left the scene.

Later that night at Beijing's Navy General Hospital, doctors sutured a 2-inch gash on the back of his head. His assailants behaved like professionals, carrying out the brutal ambush in about four minutes and showing little concern about passersby witnessing the attack. "Their goal was clear," Fang told me in a June 30 email. "It was to kill me on the spot, or stop me from reaching the hospital in time so that I would bleed to death."

Why would someone try to kill Fang Xuanchang? No one knows, or even seems to care. The attackers remain at large, despite an ongoing police investigation and Caijing's best efforts to cooperate with the police and involve the All-China Journalists Association. The attack was covered in brief in Beijing-based newspapers, including a brief editorial in a state-run newspaper arguing that journalists shouldn't be attacked. But no one in the Chinese media has gotten into the question of who would attack Fang -- and more importantly, why exactly Fang might have been attacked.

For Fang's colleagues, however, the message is clear: Reporting on controversial topics, as Fang has done, is unsafe. Journalists who are abused don't necessarily find out who has attacked them or why, but the message sent to their friends and colleagues is clear: Don't go there, or you could be next. It has a chilling effect on a wide circle of people. In the case of science journalism, the financial and political stakes are increasingly high, and the personal risks might be increasingly high as well.

Fang is one of the leading figures among China's scientific muckrakers -- a scourge of academic and government-sponsored pseudoscience and a critic of public and private quackery. For more than 10 years as a journalist, editor, and blogger on the influential (although frequently blocked) Chinese watchdog website New Threads, Fang has taken on academics listing faked awards and publishing plagiarized papers; hawkers of herbal cancer "cures," such as Wang Zhenguo, peddler of the Tian Xian herbal cancer treatment; and Chinese scientists who claim to predict earthquakes, among other targets. But paranoia and anger, even violence, mark some recent responses to Fang's work.

Several weeks ago Fang, previously science editor at China Newsweek (unrelated to the U.S. magazine Newsweek), appeared alongside a fellow rationalist, the biochemist-turned-columnist Fang Shimin (no relation, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi), on a Shenzhen TV debate about earthquake forecasting -- a largely discredited practice that remains an article of faith for many Chinese scientists and officials. One speaker, an official from China's national earthquake administration, a significant bureau under the State Council, spoke positively about parrots that can predict temblors and the paranormal abilities of a man who claimed he heard ringing in his ears before the quake in Yushu, in northwest China, in April. One guest on the show, Ren Zhenqiu of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, accused the science activists of accepting U.S. money to stifle Chinese innovation. Fang Shimin claimed on his blog that after the recording, Ren Zhenqiu called him a "big Chinese traitor" and threw a punch at him.

And this is not the full extent of the threats against Fang Shimin. On July 2, Fang said on his Sina microblog that he had received a threatening phone call. "Be careful in the next few days," the voice said. "Someone is going to fix you."

Scientific ideas have a complex life in China. Today an important government slogan is the "scientific view of development," yet academic fraud is widespread. In January, the scientific journal Acta Crystallographica Section E, a peer-reviewed international journal based in Britain, announced the wholesale retraction of more than 70 papers by Chinese scientists who had falsified data. Three months later, the same publication announced the removal of another 39 articles "as a result of problems with the data sets or incorrect atom assignments." According to New Threads, 37 of these were entirely produced at Chinese universities. One Chinese-government study cited by Nature found that about one-third of more than 6,000 scientists surveyed at six top Chinese institutions said they had practiced "plagiarism, falsification or fabrication."

Critics have blamed the pressure to produce fraudulent papers on unrealistic publication targets set by bureaucrats. But for Fang Xuanchang, the problem goes deeper still, as he told me when we met in May. It represents a slide backward from the scientific spirit of the anti-imperialist May 4th Movement -- the early 20th-century uprising that championed democracy, critical thought, and innovation. Speaking after the attack, Fang described himself and his colleagues as "quixotic." "Not many people understand the work we are doing," he said. "Most Chinese people's attitudes to science are superstitious and fearful." Things might be even worse at the elite level, he said, where science is encouraged in the abstract, without a grasp of the scientific method. Regarding scientific and critical thinking, Fang added, "Chinese people need a new enlightenment."

Such issues are not only of parochial concern: Renewing China's oft-cited historical reputation for scientific innovation is a matter of urgency for the world. Last month a report from Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts suggested that as China enters a new phase of economic and geopolitical might, the country's potential to roll out new, low-carbon technologies becomes an increasingly important factor in global efforts to address climate change.

Harnessing scientific prowess requires promoting good academic practice, scientific education, critical thinking -- and science journalism.