As an alternative to the gaokao, China’s grueling college entrance exam, many of the country’s universities offer what’s known as an “independent assessment” path — but this week, students in nine provinces and municipalities were caught trying to game the system by plagiarizing research papers.
An article published Wednesday on The Intellectual — a public account on social app WeChat that focuses on science and the humanities — identified several papers purportedly written by high school students across the country that it says had already been published in academic journals. The papers in question deal with complex topics such as “wireless communication technology,” the chemical preservation of ancient artifacts, and transportation to China’s military base in Djibouti. The original article has been deleted but can still be found elsewhere online.
According to public records, several of the students with published articles have passed the first round of universities’ independent assessments, and two have already been admitted.
Chinese universities began offering independent admission assessments in 2003 as an alternative to the gaokao. The system was intended to identify talent that might not otherwise manifest on an exam. To pass the independent assessment, students must showcase their special skills, often by fulfilling one of the following requirements: winning national-level competitions, achieving exemplary marks in school, securing patents for innovations, or getting papers published in major journals.
The apparent plagiarism was uncovered in the aftermath of another alleged academic scandal involving high schoolers earlier this month: Parents in central Henan province claimed that their students’ gaokao answer sheets had been switched during grading, resulting in lower-than-expected scores. Though an official investigation later found no evidence of grading irregularities, a user on microblogging platform Weibo noticed that one of the students named in the case had published two papers — about astronomy and electrical engineering — that shared striking similarities with papers published in 2007 and 2014.
In an interview with short video platform Pear Video, Su Hong, the student’s father, admitted that his daughter had plagiarized published papers — though he rejected the Weibo user’s assertion they were complete copies.
“All published articles — including those from businesses, work units, and government offices — are copies,” Su said. “But they don’t get published if they are total copies.” He argued that such copycat papers are fine as long as alterations are made to reduce the degree of similarity to below 30 percent. In China, plagiarism detection software, websites, and apps are widely available, but they’re also used by unscrupulous writers to reduce similarities in copied papers to an acceptable level.
Two papers mentioned in The Intellectual’s article were published in Electronics World, an influential Chinese journal. Though a simple check using a plagiarism detector shows that over 60 percent of one of the papers was lifted from others in the database, and that it overlaps with one particular paper by 30 percent, an editor from the journal surnamed Hong assured Sixth Tone that a plagiarized paper could not have been published in Electronics World.
“We won’t publish anything over 20 percent similar,” Hong said. “All articles published in our journal have to pass a plagiarism check — but you can’t expect to see two articles without a single word repeated.”
In the eyes of many Chinese students, universities’ independent assessments are gateways to a first-rate education. At some top high schools, over half of the student body opts to take the independent assessment path rather than the gaokao. On the official website of a high school in the northeastern city of Shenyang that was mentioned in the article, a graduate’s testimony says that the school places great emphasis on preparing students for independent assessments, and that teachers are deeply involved in each step of the application process. In Henan, local authorities are investigating the high school Su’s daughter attended — now that four more students from the same school are suspected of plagiarism.
Transparency in independent assessments has been a hot-button issue in China for years. In 2013, the director of Renmin University of China in Beijing was found to have manipulated the university’s independent assessment system and accepted millions of yuan in bribes. Meanwhile, outside the school system, private agencies are lining up to coach students for independent assessment, guide them through the application process, and even ghostwrite essays.
Wu Xiaogang, a sociology professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told Sixth Tone that kids from wealthy, well-connected families benefit the most from the independent assessment system. “Some parents use their social networks to win awards and secure publications for their children,” Wu said. “But students from poor, rural families will never get a chance like that.”
In July of last year, the Ministry of Education issued a guideline to address the increasingly conspicuous flaws with the independent assessment system. Now, if a student is caught submitting fake application materials, they are immediately disqualified — both from independent assessment and the gaokao — until the following year. The guideline further urges all involved parties to carefully review students’ application materials: Universities that are caught manipulating students’ odds of admission can be denied the right to conduct independent assessments.
“Many Chinese parents will do whatever it takes to get their children into a good university,” Wu said — adding that many may not even realize that they’re overstepping a moral line. “Some parents aren’t aware that what they and their children are doing constitutes plagiarism,” Wu explained, “because Chinese society lacks this general awareness, and because there tends to be few if any consequences for such actions.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A student studies for her college entrance exams in Handan, Hebei province, May 12, 2014. Hao Qunying/VCG)