Moving China From Plagarism to Innovation

Monday, August 22, 2011 7:42

From DVDs to Apple stores, China is no stranger to accusations of copying things, and in her recent series on innovation in China Louisa Lim has written a series of articles that do a great job to build a story that China a LOT of potential to achieve greatness. Potential that is being undermined by plagiarism (and other shortcuts)

Through the third article of the series(Plagiarism Plague Hinders China’s Scientific Ambition) she offers a few quotes as to “why” plagiarism and cheating exist in the scientific community which I found interesting:

Chinese culture has weaknesses which hinder innovation, such as being afraid to criticize, being afraid to show personality or think independently. These are big hindrances to the establishment of a scientific culture, – Zhao Yan of ScienceNet


We have to lose some of the Confucian obedience of the university system, and have more give and take, and collaboration and aggressive debate, to move molecules forward, to move ideas forward – Michael Zielenziger


There is another explanation behind this plague of plagiarism: money. Chinese academics receive bonuses and promotions based on how much they publish, and the necessity of being published has led to high-profile scandals.

All of which are certainly true, and each contribute to the issue.

However, as someone who has been teaching undergraduate and graduate students in CHina, the white elephant for me is China’s own education system.

It is a system that revolves around a simple concept that the closer students are able to plagiarize (memorize) the words from the page, the better they deemed to have “performed”. A system where the development of knowledge (by students) has little place, and goes far to creat disincentives for students to seek out (or develop) anything outside

Students are not being asked to independently seek out information, develop/ synthesize the information, and then create knowledge. They are told to sit down, shut up, and either memorize the text (through repetitino) or to repeat after the teacher.

It is a system that is so engrained that I would argue the students themselves often do not understand that they are doing anything wrong when plagiarizing, nor do they understand the great disservice they are doing when they are plagiarizing.

Plagiarism is an intangible rule of the road that has no place in their universe because in their universe is no such thing plagiarism.  Which really perverts the value of information for students.

That is not to say a student at a Chinese University should be excused from copying and pasting, but if said student has never had to spent three weeks in the stacks of a library or out in the field conducting interviews to develop knowledge themselves before, how are they to value the knowledge that others have developed it?

If they have not put in the 3 weeks of on the ground interviews it takes to write a 15 page paper, how easy/ difficult would it be for them to value the time and effort that is required, and thus understand the fundamental reason why we look to protect the works of others.

So while there are certainly cultural and monetary barriers to innovation in China, the core of it all is in how students for 22 years have been rewarded for copying and pasting every resource they have been handed by its education system.  It’s a tough nut to crack for China in part because it has served the country so well for the past 25 years.

It built an economy that manufactured goods that were low on the value chain, and lifted hundreds of millions. But as China looks to move forward, and in moving towards an innovative economy, it will have to develop a base of human capacity that is built on a foundation of knowledge creation vs. rote memorization.

Simply put China needs its education system to produce students who are focused on developing knowledge instead of test results.

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2 Responses to “Moving China From Plagarism to Innovation”

  1. ian says:

    August 24th, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Interesting post. Having taught undergrads in both China and Japan, though, I hesitate to blame rote memorization for lack of innovation. Japanese students likewise are passive, unwilling to speak up or challenge old ideas, and wedded to rote learning. But that has not stopped Japan becoming arguably the world’s foremost industrial process innovators. Rather, the conformist discipline of their training has enabled more effective, focused team research.

    China’s main problem (apart from copying) is the ‘fast-buck’ mentality, which is natural enough in a country at its stage of development—no poor country in the world is a hotbed of high-tech innovation. It is a matter of time.

  2. Lila says:

    September 12th, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Rich–I couldn’t agree more with this post. Talking about plagarism in China is like speaking in a parallel universe. It is not only not understood to be bad, it is actually esteemed. This is not just about rote memorization. I think it has deep roots in the traditional Chinese education system in which a student’s ability to reproduce the Classics was a mark of education. It was your ability to reproduce the exact phrase from one of the classics exactly appropriate to the current situation that showed one’s intelligence. The more of that Classic you could reproduce, the more learned you were deemed to be. Interpretation of the reproduced text had no relevance. I work with Chinese academics now and have had entire papers submitted to me for editing/collaboration that are lifted out of other works. My Chinese colleagues who have studied/worked in the West share my sense of horror, but those who actually do such things have no sense that this is a problem. The logic goes that if you are clever enough to find a really good piece of research, you will be respected for reproducing and sharing it.  I find myself stuck in a stubborn realm of cultural conceit in which I am absolutely certain that my culture’s way of looking at academics is ‘right’ and theirs is ‘wrong’.  … So how do we move to a system of developing knowledge? I’m not so sure that it is just a matter of time. What would it mean to develop knowledge ‘with Chinese characteristics’?