Recently a Chinese blogger discovered two academic theses that had been published online with the same research structure, the same wording, and almost the same title, inciting thousands of Internet users to join in condemning plagiarism.
Of course, there were differences between the two papers. One was published in July 2007, the other not until March 2008. They were written by graduate students in economics at two different universities and cited figures from two different provinces, one in the northeast and the other in the Yangtze River valley.
Before the university in Northeast China announced its decision to strip the author of the second paper of his master's degree on Monday, China Youth Daily revealed another case of plagiarism, in which a student from Central China copied the thesis of another student. He changed only the dedication of the thesis, prompting critics to label his work "the rankest sort of plagiarism".
This wave of plagiarism comes hard on the heels of an incident barely three months ago, in which the perpetrator was stripped of his associate professorship, his research team leader sacked, and his academic advisor removed as college dean.
In all the uproar, I also detect a note of resignation. Plagiarism is pretty common these days, with students sharing tales of how they managed to write their theses in a couple of weeks.
Graduate students are not the only culprits. I've leafed through several volumes of contemporary history and discovered that few of them have adequate indexes and references, even though many paragraphs or even pages of text clearly come from familiar sources, such as old media articles or published memoirs. Such works set a bad example for today's students.
Critics place the blame on a number of factors, ranging from professors' ignorance to universities' lax supervision to students' lack of self-discipline.
But I share the view of a few bloggers that the core problem is a lack of emphasis on creative and critical thinking throughout our children's education. Kindergarten teachers are too quick to correct toddlers who paint the sun or the moon as squares in different colors. In primary schools, teachers favor pupils who do not ask too many questions.
Throughout the middle school years, students are restricted to standard textbooks and a few reference materials that are thought to ensure high scores on the national college entrance examinations.
Throughout a child's secondary education, teachers encourage uniformity, instead of diversity. By the time they enter college, many students have lost interest in developing their own ideas or exploring their own areas of interest.
Consider, for example, a class for mid-level managers who were grouped into four or five teams. The professor asked each team to develop a business model, following the example of a restaurant start-up. By the end of the day, each team had come up with a model, but all except one took the example literally and focused on setting up a restaurant. The only exception set out to launch a catering service, not too different from a restaurant.
Above all, from elementary school through college, students have little chance to get to know society, to learn about social problems, and to explore ways to solve them. Without practical experience of the real world, how can they be expected to come up with their own ideas for academic theses?
It is time for schools, especially universities, to re-examine the way they teach. Strict supervision and enforcement will not root out plagiarism. The best way is to encourage creativity and critical thinking early on, providing students with ample opportunities to learn about real life and propose unique and original solutions.
(China Daily 06/04/2009 page8)