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    Actor Investigated for Academic Misconduct in Doctoral Program

    Zhai Tianlin has been accused of sidestepping graduation requirements, raising concerns over academic integrity and preferential treatment for celebrities.
    Feb 12, 2019#ethics#education

    Beijing Film Academy said Monday that it will investigate a Chinese television and film actor’s alleged academic misconduct in a doctoral program at the school, Beijing Youth Daily reported.

    The school’s probe into Zhai Tianlin, a rising star who appeared in the annual Spring Festival Gala last week, follows a series of allegations that have surfaced online in past weeks about his academic qualifications. On Jan. 31, a user on the question-and-answer platform Zhihu accused Zhai of not publishing any academic papers in state-recognized scholarly journals, a requirement for doctoral students in nearly all universities across China. Beijing Film Academy requires its doctoral students to publish at least two papers in any of China’s 6,000-plus recognized academic journals before graduation.

    Sixth Tone’s search on academic journal database China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) on Monday returns no result of paper written by Zhai.

    The actor’s studio denied the accusations on Friday, saying Zhai had met the school’s graduation requirements and that all his thesis works were original. Zhai’s doctoral dissertation will be available on CNKI in 2019, it added.

    But the day after the studio’s statement, a netizen suggested that the actor may have plagiarized from a piece published in a scholarly journal in 2006. A check on the academic journal database, CNKI, showed that Zhai had copied about 40 percent of an essay that he published in Radio and Television Review in 2017, according to the user’s post on the microblogging platform Weibo. The so-called repetition rate, which measures the similarity between articles, should be lower than 20 percent for doctoral theses as requested by the school.

    On Sunday, Zhai’s case was added by Sichuan University to a website it oversees that lists academic wrongdoings in the country.

    Sixth Tone’s phone calls to Beijing Film Academy and Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, which accepted Zhai as a postdoctoral fellow earlier this year, went unanswered on Monday. However, in its announcement, the former vowed that it would not tolerate any academic misconduct. Guanghua School of Management issued a notice Monday evening saying that it would deal with the incident according to its rules as soon as Beijing Film Academy’s investigation has concluded.

    The allegations against Zhai come amid a wave of plagiarism-related incidents that have not only tarnished China’s scholarly integrity in recent years but also raised questions about the hardships of academic publishing for doctoral students. Fearing that they may not graduate if their work is not accepted by increasingly selective journals, some are turning to online sellers specializing in academic-paper publishing.

    Zhai’s case has attracted the ire of many doctoral students, who say that the allegations demonstrate a lack of academic equity at colleges and universities.

    “Students like us can’t get into top universities even if we study hard for 20 years,” Wang Zhihao, a postdoctoral fellow in the U.S. who received his doctoral degree in China, told Sixth Tone on Monday. “But someone [like Zhai] could easily open the door to Peking University … This time, all the master’s and doctoral students in the academic community have united to fight against [Zhai] because we know too well the difficulty of earning a degree, and all we ask is fairness.”

    Before being mired in plagiarism allegations, Zhai was known for his participation in several reality television shows, such as “The Birth of Actors.” Following his enrolment in Beijing Film Academy’s doctoral program in 2014, Zhai was regarded as one of the most highly educated actors in mainland China. Zhai didn’t hesitate to discuss his academic life on Weibo over the past years, and news of his postdoctoral fellowship at Peking University became an especially hot topic after he shared his admission letter online in late January.

    “I was stressing out over my own thesis when I saw Zhai is getting a postdoctoral fellowship on Weibo,” the whistleblowing Zhihu user, a doctoral student at a domestic school who requested anonymity for fear of affecting his studies and future employment prospects, told Sixth Tone on Monday, “I was surprised and angry when I found out that he had not published even one paper in a proper academic journal,” he said. Explaining why he went after Zhai, he added, “I wanted to remind him that he should not seek fame like this.” After his Zhihu post about the actor, several of Zhai’s fans criticized him online, prompting him to dig deeper into the alleged misconduct.

    Following the post, some netizens have said they doubt if Zhai understands even the basics of academic research, with many quoting a livestreamed video from August in which Zhai seemed not to know about CNKI. Many have also questioned whether the busy actor was truly a full-time student between 2014 and 2018, as was required for his degree, and if his celebrity status may have given him unfair advantages with Beijing Film Academy and Peking University.

    “No matter what your identity is, as long as you are studying for a doctorate degree, you have to obey the rules accordingly,” said Yao Rong, a lecturer at Nanjing Normal University’s School of Education Science, in an interview with Sixth Tone on Monday. “The dignity of academic studies should not be trampled upon.”

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Actor Zhai Tianlin applauds during the 24th Shanghai TV Festival in Shanghai, June 15, 2018. VCG)