Taiwan’s rampant thesis and dissertation plagiarism has reduced the value of degrees, bringing the academic system’s public credibility to the brink of collapse.
Data published on Retraction Watch — a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers — showed that 73 papers written by Taiwanese researchers were retracted from international journals between 2012 and 2016 due to fake peer reviews, the second-highest in the world behind China.
Based on the size of the academic population, Taiwan was the highest in the world, making it academically a pirate nation.
Academic fraud in Taiwan can be divided into several types: the listing of coauthors; “plagiarism clans,” in which graduate students copy from their adviser’s thesis or dissertation; heavyweight academics using public funds to build academic paper mills; and project teachers or assistant professors hiring ghostwriters to finish their papers.
More recently, graduate students unable to complete their master’s theses and doctoral dissertations have hired ghostwriters to do it for them.
Politicians who buy their way into universities and then hire others to attend classes and ghostwrite their thesis and dissertation are in effect buying their diplomas.
Former minister of national defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) and former minister of education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) were forced to step down in 2013 and 2014 respectively due to allegations of plagiarism and using fake peer reviews.
Even Lee Si-chen (李嗣涔) and Yang Pan-chyr (楊泮池) faced academic scandals during their tenures as National Taiwan University president.
Why do Taiwanese academics continue to breach ethics instead of learning from their mistakes?
Former minister of science and technology Yang Hung-duen (楊弘敦) once tried to comfort himself by saying that this has been a problem throughout history. He said it was a problem with human nature and demanded that universities improve how they teach academic ethics.
Graduate students are required to take an online examination in research ethics. However, passing the test is easy, as they can find the answers on their smartphone while taking the test on a computer. The online examination essentially encourages them to pass an ethics test by unethical means.
In Taiwan, there is barely any mechanism to take disciplinary action against someone who breaches academic ethics. Most only receive a written warning, while their right to apply for national research projects is suspended and awards and prize money are partially reclaimed.
This systemically encourages research fraud.
In the initial investigation of an ethics breach, evidence is often never found, as academics shield one another. In the case of Yang and Chiang, for example, the government merely suspended their rights to apply for national research grants.
Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean researcher accused in 2005 of fraud, was dismissed by Seoul National University in 2006, prohibited from serving as a professor at a public university for five years, and his pension was halved.
In 2009, he was sentenced to a two-year suspended prison term after he was found guilty of embezzlement, which was later reduced by six months to an 18-month term on appeal.
An old Chinese saying goes: “Academic officials’ shamelessness is a disgrace to the nation.”
In a society where a sense of shame and strict regulations are absent, the public become the victims of academic fraud, while students learn how to live a fraudulent life at school.
Tai Po-fen is a professor of sociology at Fu Jen Catholic University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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