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    Tsinghua University Scraps Publication Requirement for PhDs

    Some experts say the move will have little practical impact at top-tier schools; others worry it will exacerbate the power imbalance between faculty mentors and their students.

    Beginning this fall, China’s elite Tsinghua University will no longer require doctoral students to publish their research in order to graduate, the school announced Monday. Instead, students will receive degrees “if their academic innovation output meets the standards for their field of study.”

    The policy change provides an alternative to China’s publish-or-perish academic evaluation system, where student graduation and faculty promotion depend largely on the amount of research an individual is able to have featured in high-ranking journals.

    China’s publication-based system originated in the late 1980s, when peer review and academic indexes were still unfamiliar concepts in the country. Around that time, Nanjing University introduced the Science Citation Index (SCI) — a scale used in the U.S. to rank journals — as a tool for evaluating the academic performance of Chinese scholars. Then in 1998, Nanjing University unveiled the Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index (CSSCI), a similar index that eventually became a national standard for academic publishing in the social sciences.

    However, in the past decade, many scholars and education experts have lamented that the pursuit of publishing in CSSCI journals has encouraged corruption, compromised academic integrity, and resulted in an overall drop in academic quality. Today, many of the world’s elite universities, including Harvard and Cambridge, do not set publication requirements for their graduate students.

    While Tsinghua’s move to eliminate such requirements would seem to be a step toward an improved academic culture, it has nevertheless sparked heated debate in collegiate circles. On one side are those who praise the move as bold and progressive; on the other are those who argue that it is hardly a catchall solution, and in fact will have little effect on the status quo.

    “It emphasizes the spirit of academic autonomy,” Zhou Xiang, an associate professor in the School of Education at Renmin University of China, told Sixth Tone. Zhou argued that the new policy should actually make graduation standards for Tsinghua’s doctoral students more rigorous, as academic ability — rather than paper-publishing ability — will now be the determining factor for whether the student qualifies for a degree. However, he also said the policy wouldn’t have much of an observable impact on students at an institution like Tsinghua, which is already a world-class university with many brilliant students.

    Zhu Jian, the former chief editor of the Journal of Nanjing University, went a step further, calling the policy “not a big deal” in the grand scheme of higher education in China. “It’s a small change that doesn’t touch the root of the problem,” he told Sixth Tone. The pressure students face to publish their work stems from universities trying to improve their national rankings, which rely heavily on indexes like the SCI and CSSCI — and that’s not likely to change anytime soon, he said.

    Since 2002, the Ministry of Education has conducted four analyses of the China’s universities to determine their relative strengths across various academic fields. A key metric in these analyses is the number of papers faculty and doctoral students publish in high-profile journals.

    With its reputation as one of the top two universities in China all but etched in stone, “Tsinghua could care less about its ranking, but what about other schools?” Zhu said, suggesting that few universities would be willing to jeopardize their rankings by adopting a similar policy — especially since the ministry’s fifth nationwide analysis is slated to begin later this year.

    On the other hand, getting published in high-ranking journals remains an essential step for students hoping to secure jobs in academia, Zhu said. In some cases, the pressure to graduate, find a job, and get promoted results in academic misconduct.

    Last year, Liang Ying, a sociology professor at Nanjing University and the recipient of a prestigious national scholarship, was found to have plagiarized at least 15 papers over her academic career. She was removed from her roles as an instructor and supervisor. In February, Zhai Tianlin, a famous actor who studied for his Ph.D. at the Beijing Film Academy, was investigated — and later had his degree revoked — for graduating without having published a single paper, in violation of the academy’s requirements.

    “It’s not that the schools can’t find ways to ensure academic integrity,” Zhu said. “It’s that they’re not acting against it — or even worse, they’re complicit.”

    Meanwhile, Li Wei, a lecturer at Huanggang Normal University with a Ph.D. in higher education, told Sixth Tone he’s concerned that the policy change at Tsinghua could widen the power disparity between doctoral students and their faculty supervisors, who occasionally make headlines for abusing students and treating them as free labor.

    “How to erase personal biases from the supervisors’ judgement ... is a question Tsinghua University must face as the next step,” Li said.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A man rides a bicycle on the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing, Aug. 18, 2017. IC)