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Mourning a scholar who never plagiarized, never cut and pasted
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Fighter planes were howling in the sky; bombs could fall anywhere; butter and meat, and most staples, were unavailable.

This was in Germany, in 1939. Even in this small town in northwestern Germany's Lower Saxony, the grim approach of World War II affected everyone.

In the University of G?ttingen, one Chinese exchange student was soldiering on with his doctoral thesis on changes of verbs in the Mahavastu (Sanskrit for "Great Event," a text of one school of early Buddhism).

After several years of intensive work, he finally came up with his essay, which underwent intense scrutiny from his German professors, and was praised as an intellectual breakthrough.

In the next few years, suffering from hunger and hiding during air raids, he managed to publish several articles in the Journal of the G?ttingen Academy of Sciences, which half a century later are still frequently cited.

Recalling this past glory, the student attributed his success to originality. "It's nothing else but creativity that defines a thesis. Repeating the points of others, or talking emptiness and straying from the point is just a waste of paper."

Conscience lost

These were the words of Ji Xianlin (1911-2009), one of China's greatest scholars in ancient languages, history and culture, whose passing on July 11 saddened the nation.

Among all his spiritual and intellectual legacies, his steadiness, dedication and originality in academic research are remarkable.

In one of his many renowned writings, he cited the importance of "academic conscience," which is missing among many Chinese academics today.

Ji strived to be original and intellectually rigorous in his research, although his living conditions were abysmal.

But so many scholars and students today, pampered in their ivory tower, don't even bother to write their own papers.

On July 15, Huang Qing, vice president of Southwest Jiaotong University, found his doctoral degree canceled because of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis.

As reported in Xinmin Weekly on July 6, Xu Zhiwei, president of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, assigned his doctoral thesis in 2005 entirely to an underling, who finished the task in about one month.

In this 51,000-word paper, 22,300 words were copied without a single change.

On June 4, local authorities shut down a "company" in Wuhan, Hubei Province, which provided assembly-line service from producing theses all the way to publishing them in journals.

Such organizations and individuals living on composing and selling papers, and some newsrooms that charge for publication, have bonded into an ugly black market, which caters to unethical university teachers and students.


In 1993, the famous American sociologist George Ritzer published his book "The McDonaldization of Society," casting light upon societal problems rooted in this modern age.

Two dimensions of the so-called McDonaldization process, namely efficiency and calculability, sharply illustrate and diagnose the ailments plaguing Chinese universities.

Efficiency - to reach a specific goal rapidly with the least amount of effort - dominates many people's thinking these days when they write - paste up, indeed - a thesis.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with efficiency, and McDonald's hamburgers are much better than many Chinese academic papers today in terms of quality.

When restlessness and inability to concentrate - and sheer laziness - pervade academia, efficiency is distorted to mean speed at any cost.

Another problem is the professional evaluation system in Chinese universities, which is driven by quantity, not quality.

The more papers you publish, the higher you climb up the professional ladder, no matter how low their quality. As McDonaldization shows, the number of papers is calculable, while the quality is not. Originality has no place in professional promotion, it's the number of papers that matters. "Ji's passing away marks the end of an era (of great masters)," says Zhao Rengui, professor of Beijing Normal University.

(Shanghai Daily July 20, 2009)

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