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China targets an academic culture of cut-and-paste

After a scandal highlighting rampant plagiarism, the government tries to rein it in – and a new generation of teachers trained abroad could help.

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Three professors at a leading Chinese university – including one of the country's top experts in traditional medicine – have lost their jobs in a new plagiarism scandal. And the government finally seems to have been jolted into tackling the academic dishonesty that plagues many faculties here.

Experts are not holding their breath, though. In a culture where knockoffs are normal, from sportswear to DVDs, it will not be easy to expunge deep-rooted academic habits, they warn. But some say hope may lie with a new generation of internationally trained teachers.

The latest fraud to rock Chinese academia centers on He Haibo, an associate professor of pharmacology at the prestigious Zhejiang University. He now admits to copying or making up material he submitted in eight papers to international journals and has been fired, along with the head of his research institute.

The affair has drawn particular attention because a world-renowned expert in traditional Chinese medicine, Li Lianda, lent his name as coauthor to one of the fraudulent papers. His tenure will not be renewed when his contract expires soon, the president of Zhejiang University has said.

"This biggest-ever academic scandal is for sure a wakeup call that the Chinese universities are facing a crisis of credibility," editorialized the state-run "China Daily."

Academic fraud is not new in China; scandals have broken sporadically over the past decade, but most cases never come to light, says Fang Shimin, founder of a website for academics.

University leaders "simply ignore the accusation or try to cover it up ... to protect the fame and gain of the university," Mr. Fang said in an e-mail.

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