June 4, 2010

Academic corruption undermining higher education: Yau Shing-tung

By Guo Jiaxue (HK Edition) Updated: 2010-06-02 07:38

In China, the number of published papers in scientific journals are a critical criterion determining a researcher's professional standing and suitability for promotion. Edmond Tang / China Daily

Even at China's best universities plagiarism and falsified data are preventing the country from developing advanced science, says a world-renowned mathematics professor. Guo Jiaxue reports.
"(Academic corruption) is serious enough to keep the development of China's advanced science from success. If it weren't, I would not have taken the trouble to speak out. There is no scholar denying it in China; they are just not willing to talk about it in public," laments one of most distinguished mathematicians.
Yau Shing-tung's expression was grave. Every word spoken by the famed mathematician was as clear and definite as his reputation and achievements.
Yau, Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University, proved the Calabi conjecture at age of 27, won the Fields Medal at 34, and had just been awarded the 2010 Wolf Prize in Mathematics, making him the first Chinese mathematician to be so honored with the two most prestigious awards in mathematics. Another famed mathematician Simon Donaldson praised Yau as the most influential mathematician of the last quarter-century.
Despite his tremendous academic achievements, Yau is known for his sharp criticism of China's academic world. This was not the first time he has lashed out in public against China's academic corruption.
"It is a phenomenon unique to China. The problem is, those who are found to plagiarize and cheat don't get punished. How can others be persuaded not to?" Yau said, straight to the point.
The word "academic corruption" is a specific term in China. Usually "corruption" refers to wrongdoing by public officials. In the international sphere, the term "academic misconduct" or "academic dishonesty" is more common.
It's not just plagiarism, Yau said. There is data fabrication and other types of cheating in relation to academic exercises. Academic corruption also refers to using one's influence to be given awards, degrees, scholarly credit, covering for counterfeiters and so on.
In the absence of consequences, more researchers are encouraged to plagiarize and commit fraud. Copying the work of others is much easier than doing original research, Yau added.
The lack of an effective mechanism for confronting academic corruption has helped to foster a spate of plagiarism scandals that have come one after another in recent years. Academic corruption has long been an open secret, Yau said.
He stressed that the problem has been very serious and commonplace even in the top Chinese universities. He Haibo, associated professor of Zhejiang University, was caught plagiarizing, copying experimental data, and other serious academic misconduct in his eight papers. He was dismissed last March. Chen Jin, a professor of Shanghai Jiaotong University, claimed in 2003 that he developed the digital signal processing microchip Hanxin, which was the first chip wholly developed in China; yet in 2006 the chip was exposed as a forgery and duplication of a Freescale DSP from the West. In 2008, three academic fraud cases were exposed at Fudan University involving professors, lecturers, PhDs and post-docs.
The special term "academic corruption" might be a clue to the nature of the problem. Yau indicated the root lies in the long-standing culture of academic departments.
Under the system, performing research and holding an official capacity are closely linked. Academic performance has a direct bearing on advancement into administrative positions. Scholars can be promoted into government. Thus, academics are more and more prone to becoming trapped into the pursuit of administrative standing, rather than devoting their time to legitimate academic research.
Moreover, Yau indicated academics, when they have been guilty of misconduct, seek protection from officials. "It means scholars can be very domineering," he said, citing that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) academicians are powerful enough to influence the government on its policies on education and research. The influence is largely based on the mere fact that they are academicians, not on the merit of what they propose. For example, it has been a tradition that if four academicians write a joint letter to the Central Government, it can reach the hands of the government officer at highest level, "which is rare in any other place in the globe".
The flood of academic corruption has resulted in low academic standards in China, he charged. "In fact, it is the main reason," he added.
He also complained that the focus on volumes of material published, in preference to the quality of research materials, also serves as an impediment to advancement of academic research.
In China, the numbers of published papers are a critical criterion determining one's professional standing and suitability for promotion.
The pursuit of quantity over quality practice may help a bad university become an mediocre one, but cannot help an ordinary one become a good one, Yau said.
"A good scholar should not just write a number of papers at an average level forever, but should solve problems," he added.
At the same time, Yau is also keen to promote higher education in China. He's devoted a lot of energy into cultivating more mathematical talents, while boldly asserting that China's present system is not capable of cultivating real talents.
He does not hesitate to point out that the system's failure to produce elite talents is the central issue. Elites are those he describes as those who will become the leaders of society in future.
"We need a large number of elites," he said. "There are not enough now, either in the business sector or in the academic world. If we can cultivate just 1 percent from among the next generation, it will be enough."
Yau stressed the US has put a lot of effort into that area of development. The top 10 universities, he says, are all dedicated to training future leaders. He cited an example: "A Harvard student studying Greek and English literature became a CEO of a listed company after graduation. That means its all-round education is quite successful."
Although the top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University, attract the best students in China, Yau suggested they still are far from the kind of elite schools he proposes.
He stressed the "elites" do not mean students successful in exams only. "National College Entrance Exams can only test the ability to pass examinations," he said.
In the US, dozens of private universities do not just require exam scores for admission, but also consider expertise and other qualities of candidates, "such as achievements in music competition, being good at sports, or having leadership ability," he said.
Moreover, Yau maintains the content of the National College Entrance Exams is quite complex, but does not cover some areas that the students should know. "The exams do not test calculus, which is essential for students who intend to be scientists, engineers, or economists," he noted in particular.
"Many mainland students told me their National College Entrance Exam scores and asked whether they could be admitted into the Mathematics Department of Harvard. I have to say maybe they can get into Harvard, but never the Mathematics Department, because they don't even know calculus."
Yau indicated the present education program in China is designed to make sure every student in a class can pass, with the result that there is not enough attention given to the promotion of excellence. Such a policy is unfair to students who are particularly bright. "There are many Chinese students who are mathematically gifted," he said wistfully.
"I have been trying to solve this problem. Universities should not be afraid of being criticized by the government," he said. In 2005, Yau established a Yau Shing-tung class at Zhejiang University to attract gifted students for the purpose of undertaking elite education.
Yau has noticed some improvements. "I criticized professors for not teaching undergraduates about seven or eight year ago; now the situation is improving," he said.
Higher education is also opening up, and increasing the amount of international exchange and communication. "Yet it's still not extensive enough," he noted.
Despite his tough criticisms, "I have deep feelings for China, and most of my acquaintances are Chinese," the mathematician said.
There is an old Chinese saying that a good medicine tastes bitter to mouth. Yau's bitter medicine aims to cure the ills of China' education and academic world and bring it to a higher standing.

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