The Lessons From The Shantou University Plagiarism Case

The Zhou Yezhong plagiarism case has been reported in The Guardian.  But this is China, a country of 1.3 billion people, and nothing is ever consistent and regular.  As disappointing as the Zhou Yezhong case was (see my previous post A Case of Justifiable Plagiarism), there are other instances when things worked out otherwise.  The following is a translation of a report in Southern Weekend about a case of academic plagiarism at Shantou University.  From the moment when a student posted a complaint on the Internet to the resignation of the plagiarizing professor, the elapsed time was less than 80 hours.

How was this possible?  I will conjecture that this is because Shantou University Changjiang Journalism and Communications Institute director Chan Yuen-ying is also the director of the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and therefore her sense of priority and protocol may be quite different from mainland administrators.  As such, this case study is an important lesson about how to handle plagiarism cases without all those considerations about party loyalty and social harmony.

(Southern Weekend)  The Lesson from the Hu Xingrong Plagiarism Affair at Shantou University.  By Cheng Qijin (程绮瑾).  January 5, 2006.

"I spent two days of time handling this affair.  Basically, I did not sleep at all", said Shantou University Changjiang Journalism and Communications Institute director Chan Yuen-ying as she shrugged her shoulders.  On the evening of December 15, 2005, she was in Hong Kong and she received an email from a student as well as an email from Professor Hu Xingrong who was involved in the areas of the theory of journalism, print media inside and outside of China and social group culture, and found out that there was a "major event" a day ago.

At 3:37pm on December 14, at the Zhonghua Media Net forum, Fudan University doctoral student Zhang Zhian published a post.  In the post, Zhang Zhian made a comparison of three paragraphs in two articles.  One of them was co-published by him in 2002 in an article titled "Preliminary Explorations of Media Professional Managers" and the other was Hu Xingron's 2004 paper "Chinese Media Calls For Authoritative Media Managers."  Based upon the comparison, Zhang Zhian believes that Hu Xingrong was guilty of "serious plagiarism" of his article.

When Chan Yuen-ying received the email, this item had become one of the "top 10 hottest topic" on the Yujinxiang forum at Shantou University.  "I am ashamed to be his student," "It is a shame to Shantou University" and other comments hastened Chan Yuen-ying's determination to handle this matter expeditiously: "If it doesn't get taken care of quickly, it will be bad.  The Internet opinions were going wild.  The reputations of our many graduates will be damaged" and "We are a young institution and we value our reputation."

On the evening, Hu Xingrong's family members came to Shantou from Malaysia.  He invited students and colleagues to a dinner and they enjoyed themselves.  Shortly after the dinner ended, at 10:21pm that evening, Hu Xingrong posted an apology to Zhang Zhian at the Zhonghua Media Net forum.  But Zhang Zhian did not think that Hu Xingrong was sincere enough, and did not forgive him.

Combining the material provided by Zhang Zhian and the apology by Hu Xingrong, Chan Yuen-ying thought that the matter was quite clear: Hu Xingrong really committed plagiary, and the only solution was for Hu Xingrong to resign.  But she reserved one day's time for feedback from others.

At 2pm on the afternoon of the 16th, less than 50 hours after Zhang Zhian's post, Chan Yuen-ying posted on the Institute's BBS an open letter from the Journalism and Communications Institute director to calm down the students and to report on the progress in the case: "He (Hu Xingrong) has publicly apologized.  I am discussing how to handle the matter with the university and the Institute instructors on the basis of the accusations as well as Professor Hu's response."  Chan Yuen-ying emphasized the principles of the Institute: "Plagiarism is absolutely not permitted.  The teachers at the Institute must strictly follow academic rules."  At the same time, she reported to the university that the case is being handled.  The university agreed that Journalism and Communications Institute should handle this matter on its own.

Shantou University receives funds from the Li Kar-shing Foundation and is one of the few Chinese institutions of higher learning in which the president is accountable to a board of directors.  The various schools within the Shantou University all have accountability systems with their own directors.  Chan Yuen-ying was in the journalism business for 23 years in the United States, and she is also the general inspector at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Research Centre.  Three years ago, she was appointed to become the director of the Changjiang Journalism and Communications Institute.  When she first arrived, there were three signs in front of the Institute: Journalism School, University Party Propaganda Department and Electronic Learning Center.  The first thing that Chan Yuen-ying did upon taking over was to sent the last two signs back to the university.  The number of workers at the Institute was reduced by half, and they looked for new talents from elsewhere all over again.

The rebuilt Changjiang Journalism Institute staff was recruited largely from overseas and Hong Kong with people who have actual media experience, including Hu Xingrong from Malaysia.  According to the information from the Changjiang Journalism Institute, Hu Xingrong has a bachelor's degree from Taiwan University, a master's degree from Tonghai University in Taiwan and a doctorate from Peking University.  He had also been an editor at a news magazine in Hong Kong.  There is a common understanding among those teachers with similar backgrounds and who have a three-year contract that if a news worker is found to engage in fraud, they must resign as a result or else they will be fired.  The same methods are applicable to university journalism teachers.  Afterwards, another foreign teacher told the students: "If teacher Hu did not leave, the other teachers would have left."

On the morning of the 17th, Chan Yuen-ying flew back to Shantou and met with the Institute's party secretary and deputy director (who was responsible for administration) and they reached a consensus.  At 3pm, Chan Yuen-ying met with Hu Xingrong.  Hu offered to resign.  From the moment when the apology was posted on the 15th to the resignation on the 17th, Chan Yuen-ying said that there was a change in attitude by Hu Xingrong, but she refused to discuss the details.  She only said that when she met with Hu Xingrong on the 17th, "We did not ask him to stay and he did not offer any explanation.  I spoke to Professor Hu for about 10 minutes and we reached an agreement.  For the sake of the Institute and according to our principles, his resignation was the only possible outcome."

For a foreign teacher working on a contract, the departure of Hu did not involve any complicated issues with personnel records or organizations, and it was effective immediately.  By coincidence, Hu Xingrong's three-year contract with the Institute would expire at the end of 2005.  But Chan Yuen-ying emphasized that was unrelated to the decision for Hu Xingrong to resign.  Another approach would have been to decline to extend Hu's contract, but Chen believes that the Institute must make a clear decision instead of waiting for the contract to expire.

"His resignation implies the loss of his job, and therefore it is a punishment," said Chan Yuen-ying.  "Without the job, the title of professor is gone.  Within the system, if you are a 'professor', then you are professor for life.  According to foreign practice, the job title is tied to the work."

At 10:40pm on the 17th, Chan Yuen-ying posted on the Shantou University BBS to announce: "Professor Hu Xingrong resigned from the Institute today.  I have accepted his resignation effective today.  All the courses and examinations that Professor Hu was responsible for will not be affected.  During this week between 2:30-4:00 afternoon, I will be in my office to discuss any questions with students."  It was less than 80 hours since Zhang Zhian first made his post.

After announcing that the resignation of Hu Xingrong has been accepted, Chan Yuen-ying met with three graduate students.  These three graduate students had just graduated from three different mainland universities and are the first masters students at the Changjiang Journalism and Communications Institute.

Upon meeting them, Chan Yuen-ying posed a question.  She took out a copy of a northern Chinese university's document on "Regulations on Undergraduate Examination and Academics" just released on December 14.  This document stipulates that undergraduates who plagiarize under four sets of conditions will be expelled.  Specifically, they involve: an essay in which 50% of the content was copied; the undergraduate thesis has at least 30% or more of the content plagiarized; to express other people's viewpoints as the total, core or major viewpoints of one's own work; and letting others write one's thesis or writing someone else's thesis.

Chan Yuen-ying asked the three students to assess this document.  The three thought that this was rigorous.  Chen said: "You have all failed."

Afterwards, she gave the students three assignments: 1. translate the Harvard University regulations against plagiarism for its students from English into Chinese; 2. translate the mainland China regulations into English; 3. summarize the ten most significant cases of academic fraud in 2005.

After translating the Harvard University regulations into Chinese, the students found them to be incredible: "This is so detailed and rigorous.  We feel that what we used to think as normal is defined as plagiarism here."  The mainland Chinese regulations translated into English also caused amazement among the foreign instructors at the Institute.  Peter M. Herford, who was a famous former "60 Minutes" producer in the United States and taught six years at Columbia University and now teaches international news and visual communications at the Changjiang Journalism Institute said: "Plagiarism is like being pregnant.  You are either pregnant or not.  There is no such thing as being somewhat pregnant or pregnant by a certain percentage."

(Note: Peter Herford is on the left)