China’s most prestigious university has lost a legal case in which it claimed that a former student had plagiarized her Ph.D. dissertation, according to a court statement seen Wednesday by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.
Yu Yanru, a former doctoral student in history who had her dissertation annulled by Peking University (PKU) in January 2015, successfully argued that the school’s appraisal procedure for determining whether her work had been falsified was unfair and unlawful.
On Tuesday, PKU was ordered by the Haidian District People’s Court in Beijing to overturn the annulment, a move that had effectively voided Yu’s degree. The court said in its statement that China’s procedures for annulling degrees lacked clear guidelines, but that PKU “did not fully listen to Ms. Yu’s explanation and defense,” thereby violating “correct procedural principles.”
The court did not rule on whether Yu had committed plagiarism.
Kong Defeng, a Beijing-based lawyer, described Tuesday’s decision as a “shortcut.” In a telephone interview with Sixth Tone on Wednesday, Kong elaborated: “There are two levels to this case, [only] one of which has to do with whether plagiarism took place. The court avoided talking about substantial things, and instead seized on [Peking University’s] procedural flaws.”
“The university may be abusing its power,” Kong continued, saying that because schools can largely draw up their own rules for issuing degrees, they have considerable discretion when it comes to who should be awarded them. “The number of essays required to graduate varies from school to school, allowing [scope for] transgressions of power to take place,” said Kong. “So there are problems with the requirements themselves.” PKU was unable to be reached for comment by Sixth Tone on Thursday.
Allegations of academic plagiarism are common in China, a country where college students frequently risk expulsion from university for passing off others’ work as their own. In a March 2016 plagiarism case, Anhui University canceled two students’ Master’s degrees and suspended their supervisor from advising graduate students for two years. In October the same year, a lab technician at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou had his Ph.D. rescinded after 10 of his dissertation submissions were found to contain fraudulent material.
Yu’s woes can be traced back to August 2014, a year after she obtained her Ph.D., and the year PKU first informed her of its suspicions that her dissertation — which dealt with French journalism in 1775 — showed signs of plagiarism. In January 2015, the college’s degree evaluation committee informed Yu of its decision to rescind her degree, alleging that her dissertation, submitted in March 2013, had been severely plagiarized.
However, Yu refused to take the decision lying down. In July 2015, after failed appeals to both the university and the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, she took her case to court, demanding that PKU withdraw its decision to cancel her degree and reinstate her Ph.D. certification, effective immediately.
The ruling represents the culmination of Yu’s two-year fight to win back recognition for her work. However, with the university intending to appeal the court’s decision, her relief may yet be short-lived.
Additional reporting by Lin Qiqing.
(Header image: A sign marking the entrance to Peking University is seen behind a stone lion in Beijing, July 5, 2013. Zhan Min/VCG)