How can I convince graduate students in China to not copy/paste from the Internet into their research papers?

AssociateProfessorInChina 08/01/2018. 13 answers, 17.754 views
publications plagiarism china

I'm posting from an anonymous account, for reasons that will be obvious.

I'm an associate professor in China at one of the top 10 universities in China, and have been working in China for a number of years. Most research in our lab is respectable and unproblematic. We get some papers in top journals and conferences.

As a native English speaker, I help on papers from graduate students. Some of these papers are conference papers, and some are journal papers. The conference papers I work on are international.

However, probably between 30% to 50% of the Chinese graduate students I work with copy and paste from the Internet into their research papers (from Wikipedia, from other papers, from software documentation, and so on). The amount ranges from a sentence here and there, to whole sections. It's usually easy for me to notice copy/pasted material (it's where they suddenly write like a native English speaker with 10+ years of research experience). Yesterday, I encountered the worst instance of copy/paste I've ever seen, and I flatly refused to be listed as a co-author.

What's become clear:

  • The students generally think it's acceptable to copy/paste; they're unconcerned even if it's published.
  • Part of the motivation behind copy/pasting is that English is their second language.
  • The Chinese professors (i.e., their supervisors) mostly do not read their students' papers; they might take a quick check before submission.
  • The Chinese professors push the students into rushing to meet conference submission deadlines, and I feel this has a negative impact on both their research and paper-writing quality.
  • The university doesn't outright condone plagiarism, but they don't seem to think of it as a negative. I get the impression that it's considered efficient use of time. The focus is on getting it published, while significance, errors, and plagiarism are less important.
  • Many of the students do not intend to have careers in academia. The paper will not have much significance, but it's either required for their degree, or their supervisor is pushing them into writing it. They don't care much.

I've explained how serious a matter this is, over and over. And honestly, I'm fed up repeating myself – it makes me feel like the university (and research in China) is a joke. It makes me feel ashamed to work here.

I've tried repeatedly explaining this to everyone, but the seriousness is not getting through. They just think I'm overreacting.

Q: How can I convince graduate students in China to not copy/paste from the Internet into their research papers?

I'm looking for an answer along the lines of "the negative consequences of copy/pasting from the Internet in publications are blah". I have no intention to pack up and leave; I just want to get the message across and convince them that plagiarism matters. So I'm thinking about writing a document entitled e.g. "why we shouldn't plagiarize" and sending it around.

13 Answers


xuq01 08/01/2018.

OK, it's getting weird now. I thought this would be much less common in top 10s.

There's a simple path here: tell them plagiarized papers are not going to get published, or will be retracted in the future, and this will hinder their graduation & will create trouble for their advisor (+ advisor would lose face) if they insist on submitting such papers.

When your students (and everyone else) care only about the "pragmatic", give them "pragmatic" reasons! Chinese people generally do not like creating trouble/making others lose face, so that's a good path.

Convincing them that plagiarism is morally incorrect and not right would be harder, and students would likely not buy into that. But the pragmatic path gets the job done :-)


From the situation you described, I infer two things about your situation. Correct me if I am wrong:

  1. The university you're at is likely not top-tier. I would be surprised if even the researchers at Tsinghua or Jiaoda (Shanghai Jiaotong University) engage in academically dishonest conduct frequently. I suppose you're likely at a local (provincial) university.

  2. Your colleagues/students are mainly targeting domestic conferences/journals (and likely not the top ones). Otherwise they will surely know that academically dishonest practices will get their papers rejected.

If both are true, I'm afraid little could be done. You could try very hard to at least make your students not plagiarize, but this will probably have a very negative impact on future recruitment, and even your students are not going to 100% listen to you. The best option at hand is trying to move to another university (preferably in another country) if this bothers you (it would bother me for sure).


The ranty part:

Chinese universities (not the top ones) usually have little regard for academic integrity, and "getting the thing done" is more important than doing it honestly. (Rant: in fact, many school teachers and parents consider cheating much less severe than doing poorly on exams - as long as you do not get caught. Heck, some parents might even encourage their kids to cheat.) Most of the universities wouldn't do anything to HW plagiarism and/or cheating in exams. I suppose bringing your issue to the management would only anger the management (what the heck is this foreigner doing, just let them publish whatever they want so that money gets into our accounts).

As for the domestic journals/conferences, I'm afraid they are not academically rigorous (I would even say many of them are simply academic garbage). I've seen papers that are probably best characterized as college term project writeups (e.g. "Building a Student Management System using PHP Framework xxxx" - what the heck?), high school research project reports, or even utter nonsense published in the (less reputable) academic journals. No one really ever reads (or takes seriously) those journals, and people publish in them just to boost their publication record, and (worse) cite them to increase the impact factor and citation #s of those journals. A disastrous cycle.

I hate to say bad things about Chinese universities, as I have lots of friends, relatives and such studying, working and teaching at those universities. But sometimes the reality is harsh.


Patric Hartmann 08/02/2018.

tl;drThe majority of students simply will not understand the academic view of plagiarism. There is only so much you can do to help them. At some point you simply cannot help them any further. There's often nothing more you can do than taking care it does not influence your career.

Long version

My wife has graduated from a top-10 university in China (she's Chinese). I was very much involved in the writing of her master's thesis. I also supervised students in China during my time there and did so (and still do so) for Chinese students in Germany and Switzerland.

The issue is actually very simple but in most cases nigh to impossible to tackle. They see no wrong in doing so. When something is published they consider it common knowledge. Science, for them, is about knowledge, not about people. Names come and go, they vanish, many are dead already, so what do they matter? Of importance are the findings, not the finder.

You can (as I do) try to tell them that it will hamper their global career if they keep on doing so. That's a pragmatic reason many do understand. However, many students in China and Chinese abroad simply do not aim for this global career. They will go back, take care of their parents and have a good career there - among other people who think the same way as they do.


Scientist 08/02/2018.

tl;dr Move elsewhere. If not, make sure your immediate colleagues feel the consequences of academic misconduct.

I have worked as a postdoctoral fellow for two years in China. I was invited to stay as an assistant professor, and indeed had moved in with the intention of learning the culture and adapting for a longer stay. However after mere 4 months I completely gave it up because of a number of issues in Chinese academia, including what you describe and other serious issues.

I only had direct experience with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and South China Agricultural University. However I interacted with a number of colleagues from other institutions, and took part in 4 local conferences. I refrained from living in an expat bubble, and dealt with locals all day. This gave me an overview of how Chinese Academia works, and why.

Mind the premises below:

  1. Plagiarism is not perceived as a serious issue.
  2. Cheating is perceived as being practical/smart.
  3. Cheating is not considered akin to stealing.
  4. Exposing others is not socially acceptable.
  5. Punishing someone is reserved to either higher authorities or a local majority (e.g. a mob);
  6. none of which include foreigners.
  7. Because of fairly recent past events and opinion-shaping education, foreigners are taken as arrogant whenever intruding in Chinese culture and affairs.

This makes your stand quite delicate, and the simplest solution is that you move away. However you say that is not an option. Points (1-3) will neutralise any attempts at lecturing them on this point (or statistics, salami publication, etc). Believe me: I have tried. They will nod and agree, but that is merely point (7) echoing in their heads.

My colleagues in China would change posture, albeit momentarily, when they got exposed. But the problem is, exposing them yourself incurs in points (4 & 5) and reinforces (7), and you cannot rely on administration to do it because of (1-3). This is an endless circle which will drive you crazy and isolate you further. (That was I few months ago.)

However you will see some change if somebody gets exemplary punishment and exposure from perceived higher authorities. Since you're decided to stay and want them to change, I suggest you report a number of (the most obvious) local cases to responsible editors and expose them anonymously online. If you know how to blow a whistle well enough, at least a couple of retractions will ensue. If enough media exposure is given to such frauds & retractions, the local government will punish someone to save face. Then you should see your colleagues trying to avoid being caught on obvious plagiarism, though I highly doubt that mean they acquired a difference stance on cheating.

Be extremely careful with being a whistleblower in academia, anywhere, but especially in China. Don't do it openly, especially as a foreigner. Best of luck, and just reconsider moving elsewhere.

P.S. An important point: be mindful that most Chinese academics strive to publish with paid publishers (Frontiers, Nature SciRep) through Chinese editors and reviewers. This greatly increases the chances of manuscript acceptance (e.g. peer review agreed over phone/wechat calls), and also that whistleblowers are prone to take the bitter end. Do not approach editors in such cases.


Nicole Hamilton 08/01/2018.

You already ruled out the best answer, which I think you should reconsider: If the cheating and plagiarism bothers you as much as you say (and it would bother me, too!), you should find someplace better and go there. Those places exist.

A friend of mine who was a social worker once remarked to me that people don't make changes in their lives until the pain of staying where they are is worse than the pain of changing. If I was as unhappy as you are, I would make a change in my own life rather than expecting everyone around me to change theirs.


Buffy 08/01/2018.

I'm sorry if this answer is a bit contrary. However, you are judging people on the basis of European cultural standards that they don't necessarily accept. Those standards are not part of their history or traditions, which are themselves long and deep. Europeans, and places strongly influenced by European culture have had a long held and deep belief in the concept of personal property. What's mine is mine. Perhaps the Magna Carta was an early expression of this.

China's history is very different. Before the revolution, China had a strong feudal system in which the peasant couldn't be said to own anything - not even their own bodies. Communism introduced its own beliefs and norms, but strong defense of personal property wasn't one of them. What's ours is ours.

Even in "the west", we don't believe in the ownership of "ideas". You can't copyright an idea. You can't patent it (though software patents are a strange case).

But we, in "the west" do believe in private ownership of "words." That is copyright. We also believe in the ownership (for a limited time) of the realization of ideas in inventions. That is patent.

However, words are little but the expression of ideas. We (Westerners) treat words and expression as very distinct. But it can be a hard sell to make that distinction in a culture that hasn't had the same history of private ownership at all. In a hundred years it will, perhaps, change, as China is changing.

That doesn't give you a solution, though I hope it tells you why you have a problem. If you can convince the students that it will be useful for them to adopt Western standards of behavior in order to more effectively communicate their own ideas to Western readers you might have an effect. "You don't need to believe this way, but it will be useful for you to act this way." Long term it may be beneficial. But, long term, it might also turn out that the concept of plagiarism just goes away.

The question of cheating on examinations and in student work generally is a different issue but it also has cultural roots. In authoritarian regimes, if a person with authority over you asks for something - anything - you give it to them. You don't ask or even consider why. It is their right to ask it. It is your duty to deliver it. No matter the motive. In medieval times in Europe, if the local lord wanted to sleep with your wife on your wedding night he did. You had no basis for refusal. It can be very strong.

Teachers have authority over students. If a teacher asks a student for a piece of work or an answer, the why and the how aren't part of the considerations of the student (assuming authoritarian principles). You just find a way to deliver it. In fact, in the US, not all students really understand, unless they are told, is that the reason you ask them fo complete a project isn't that you need the project itself, but the change in the brain that completing it will induce in themselves. I've never (well almost never) given students a task I couldn't do myself, usually better. But that wasn't the point.

But in an authoritarian structure, the subordinate just gets the job done - no matter how. It is a deeply felt duty. "Sir. YES Sir." quoting a Marine recruit.

If this is the problem (duty to authority), then you need to educate the students as to what it is you really want from them. Not the completed project, but the change in the brain that actually doing it the hard way will induce. But if you are countering their traditions, it still won't be an easy task.

Even if a regime isn't authoritarian generally, it may be that academic traditions in a given place put the teacher in such a "high" position that is at least locally authoritarian. And even in some academic cultures that are not generally highly authoritarian, an individual professor may be able to impose such a structure. It is counterproductive, but it exists. Don't be that professor.


Wrzlprmft 08/01/2018.

To keep things simple, I will only talk about journal publications here. Everything should translate to conference publications. Also, note that I have no hands-on experience with Chinese academia.

As already noted by xuq01 and Nicole Hamilton, it seems that your colleagues only care for short-time practical consequences and are unwilling to change their conduct unless they see that the consequences are severe. However, right now, they do not feel any consequences – their approach is working for them. This could have multiple reasons, which all lead to different conclusions:

  • Evaluation criteria and similar do not properly account for journal quality, giving value to journals that do not care about plagiarism, even if they know it. → You would have to effect a change of the evaluation criteria.

  • The evaluation criteria and similar would favor publishing in quality journals, but your colleagues ignore this. → Educate your colleagues how they could get secure more resources by giving up plagiarism.

  • The journals would care about plagiarism, but they do not notice. → Anonymously report some prominent case.

  • You are removing all the plagiarism before it can backfire. → Let your colleagues hit the wall, e.g., by refusing to work on that particularly bad paper.

Some obvious disclaimers: Reality will likely be a complicated combination of these effects. Also, some of the suggestions may be impossible or risky for you, depending on what level things happen.


Chris Sunami 08/01/2018.

You don't have to solve this problem for a whole nation, or even for your school. Just insist, up front, clearly, and in writing, that for work submitted to you, or that you collaborate on, copied material must be identified and cited correctly. They don't need to agree with you philosophically, they just need to understand your personal standard.

Most students --and most institutions --understand that different professors have different "non-negotiables" within their own classrooms/labs. It may help if you explain that you personally may want to work outside China again someday, and therefore you need to keep your "hands clean" by global academic standards.

Of course, you'll need to establish some fairly stiff consequences --bad marks in the classroom, aborted collaborations for publication, etc. You might not catch 100% of the plagiarism, but the goal (as in the West) is to make it a better bet for them to just comply than to risk being caught. You might explain carefully that you don't mind them copying, you just want them to be sure to cite (assuming that's true).


SmallChess 08/01/2018.

You could report to the senior management, however, academics cheating is common in China. There's a decent possibility that you will just land yourself into troubles. Unless you could expose the scandal to the media, the Chinese people don't care. Cheating is everywhere in the Chinese culture.

It's not something you can do about it. There're Chinese companies for writing the entire PhD thesis for money.

  1. Join a higher tier university. The top Chinese researchers don't cheat and very good in research.
  2. Keep quiet, but don't do it yourself.
  3. Report to the senior management but you probably won't get anything in returns

Ed Avis 08/01/2018.

It's not plagiarism if you put it in quotation marks and cite the source. So just tell them to do that. They can still save time by copy and paste, but won't infringe academic norms about copying without attribution.


Arthur Tarasov 08/02/2018.

Oh so many answers already before this university professor from China got to it :]

The reason they copy/paste stuff is because they don't know how to do it properly + they don't have incentives to do it properly. I work at a smaller university with solely business focus, but whenever some requirement trickles down here from the top everyone normally just tries to get it out of the way wasting as little time as possible.

I don't know what you teach and what format your classes have, but it helps if you ask your students about their future plans and how they plan to use what they learn in their careers. Chances are they have it pretty well figured out already and the publication requirement is one of a thousand check marks they have to tick to get their diploma and on their way to make money while the music is still playing because they hear the music is getting quieter.

A possible approach is to make the requirements stricter, which will push the publication higher up that check-mark list and force them to spend (or waste?) more time on it. I don't like this approach.

What I prefer is find what they really need for their careers and try to adjust the requirement so they can learn to do what they need, what the market needs them to do, what will bring them the most money when they join the workforce. I don't know how much administrative freedom you have over those requirements. If not much, you might be confined to a pretty stinky solution #1


Adonalsium 08/01/2018.

Point out how it's in their favor to examine things, even if they end up making it less "proper English" in the process. Even if they don't care about the academics of it, they still want to learn, get a degree, and get a good job. I'd suggest attacking it from the angle of personal growth - Something like...

"If you simply copy and paste, you aren't checking the veracity of the claim, and you aren't synthesizing the information into something new. When you find information for your paper, you'll improve yourself more by first making sure the claim is true, and then digesting and re-working the claim into your own words, so that you can be sure that you've internalized the claim that you're using. Once you've done this, doing the actual additional work of citing the source is not much of a time or effort investment."


Andrew Jaffe 08/01/2018.

Find out where they are submitting the papers, and tell the students that you will contact the editor/organiser about the plagiarism.


vonbrand 08/01/2018.

A point I make to my students here is that they are expected to write their own work, and take care to cite others as needed (out of courtesy). Do summarize other work only if needed to understand the topic at hand.

This is mostly when writing their final theses, we have rather draconian page limits. But that is also true in journals and conferences, and the same applies: write less, but better.


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