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[Voice] How can Korea end plagiarism?

Korea’s education system, ranked second in the world in some assessments, has been feted far and wide. But its impressive ranking internationally obscures a less glorious reality at the country’s centers of learning: rampant plagiarism. Cases of academic fraud at the university level emerge with alarming frequency, often implicating those at the highest levels of power.

In February, Presidential Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol was forced to apologize for copying sections of his doctoral dissertation. Before and since, numerous lawmakers, bureaucrats, university professors and celebrities have faced similar charges of plagiarism. But if academic fraud has long been recognized as a scourge of academic life in Korea, any definitive solution to the problem has so far proved elusive.
Presidential Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol is among a string of public figures who have been embroiled in plagiarism scandals in recent months. (Yonhap News)
Presidential Chief of Staff Huh Tae-yeol is among a string of public figures who have been embroiled in plagiarism scandals in recent months. (Yonhap News)

Lee In-jae, a professor at the Department of Ethics Education at Seoul National University of Education, said students’ ignorance about plagiarism and why it is problematic needed to be addressed.

“Concerning this, I would like to suggest two directions. One is that it is very important for them to correctly recognize what plagiarism is, and why it is serious research misconduct,” said Lee. “The other is that they must be educated in order to have good writing habits. Whenever they write their papers or reports using other’s ideas, words, and data etc., they should cite their sources accurately. The university must provide both regulation and education to prevent plagiarism.”

Tech solutions

While the government has guidelines for punishing plagiarism and data fabrication, ranging from a three-year ban on research to outright dismissal, they are not binding, nor is there any related enforcement body. It is up to individual universities to define plagiarism and ensure there are systems in place to detect and punish it. The absence of precise government guidelines, however, leaves universities in a difficult position when trying to identify plagiarism, according to a university official at the office of research affairs at one of Seoul’s top-ranked universities.

“Among other things, there is no legal definition of plagiarism. Guidelines should be first set by the Ministry of Education,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for herself and her university due to the possible effect on the school’s reputation.

“As most Korean universities have a research ethics committee, the committee will deal with plagiarism cases only after someone raises a complaint. Research papers involve highly complicated content so the matter is determined case by case. Even if the university cancels a Ph.D., the author may appeal to the courts.”

One tool being deployed in the fight against blatant copying in recent years is plagiarism-detection software. Copy Killer, a program that compares submitted papers with an internal database, was rolled out on campuses including Sogang University and Dongguk University for the first time this year, following the earlier example of Ewha Womans University, POSTECH and Kyung Hee University.

The use of such software is far from ubiquitous, however. Downplaying the advantages of plagiarism-detection programs over the judgment of a professor, the university official said that only individual professors used the software, rather than her school as a whole.

“The use of software is not a formal system, so it can be used by an individual professor in his or her lecture. But when a plagiarism case becomes formal and comes under review of the committee, it is not important whether the software detected much plagiarism,” she said. “Expert professors will decide if there was plagiarism.”

Before it ever becomes an issue for the university authorities, cheating is first dealt with by the lecturers themselves. As the first line of defense against the problem, educators come up with their own methods to tackle the problem.

“I have found that the more vague I am with assignments, the more likely that a problem will come up,” said Steven Ward, a political science and international relations lecturer at Chosun University in Gwangju. “The biggest problems I had would be when I give a take-home essay exam, where I would give them an essay question which they would have to answer. But when they actually have to do it in class, it has substantially reduced the problem.”

While plagiarism occurs among only a minority of his students, Ward has seen students plagiarize up to three-quarters of their papers from the Internet. In cases like this, Ward said that taking the student aside and explaining the seriousness of what they’d done usually prevented repeat offenses. Yet, warning against plagiarism at the start of the semester appeared to have little effect on behavior.

“What I have done in the past is scare students, basically. I’ll put a zero on the top of their essay and that really sort of surprises them and scares them, I may even put something like, ‘come talk to me after class.’ And when they come talk to me I am actually very nice, so it is sort of a one-man good cop, bad cop routine … I walk them through it and I say, ‘I am not mad, but you need to rewrite this essay.’”

Ward said that the problem was most pronounced earlier on in students’ academic careers, suggesting that many students were entering university with either a lack of understanding about plagiarism or few qualms about committing it. Acknowledging this, some high schools are trying to nip the problem in the bud before students reach university.

Early intervention

A three-year high school course that prepares students for admission into U.S. universities, the Global Leader Program at Bugil Academy in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province, puts particular emphasis on instilling in its students an understanding of the seriousness of plagiarism.

“Because they are trying to attend American universities, we definitely stress the importance of academic dishonesty and how serious it is viewed over in America,” said Steve Feldman, an instructor with the program. “Because if you get caught plagiarizing a major paper, you can get kicked out and often are.”

In his school’s case, this means clearly laid-out rules and punishments for cheating.

“So we have workshops at the beginning of the year and a clearly defined punishment system, but a few times a year we still catch students and they face zeroes, they face suspensions,” he said. “Our official policy is third strike and expulsion, but we haven’t had to go that far yet.”

Feldman said that a more concerted effort was needed across education institutions to tackle the problem, which he said was already giving Korea a “stigma” abroad. While not relevant to his own workplace, he said that his school’s former guidance counselor had experienced considerable skepticism about Korean schools generally from admissions offices at top U.S. universities.

“He said that they would roll their eyes when he said, ‘We are this Korean foreign language school’ and they would say they know that some of the application essays are being written not by the students and they know that there is rampant grade inflation.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)


Readers’ voice

Ending plagiarism...

Plagiarism is a worldwide endemic problem, so don’t expect an overnight silver bullet. Nonetheless, solving the problem is not impossible. Start with teaching students how to better cite and reference their works. That should help prevent a lot of accidental or apathetic plagiarism.

Professors and teachers need to show an interest in what (and how) the students write. If they don’t care, the students won’t care either and will just take the easy way out by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia (with the typos and “citation needed” still in the text).

This means allowing students flexibility in their argument, getting them to use sources to back up their argument of choice, instead of making them back up a point of view they don’t necessarily agree with.

Next, there are specialized websites and software that can detect plagiarized papers. Professors who are concerned about plagiarism should consider using available tech to detect plagiarism in their students’ papers. From there, the professor or teacher can discuss the matter with the student and show them how the matter should be settled.

Teachers in Korea should make it clear to students that being caught plagiarizing will ruin their careers later in life, and make it more difficult for other countries to trust the quality of research coming out of Korean universities. Take China, for instance. The Chinese universities produce a lot of research, but their papers are hardly ever cited outside of China because people don’t trust the researchers. For transparency, my main sources of information were Education.com and NPR.org.

― Stephen Alexander, Suncheon,

South Jeolla Province

Every department in Korean universities should form a committee for the mitigation of plagiarism. Professors and committee members seem to be overlooking the issue particularly in dissertation writings. It seems students are not well oriented on this issue such as what it really stands for, in what respects plagiarism takes place and so on. Even professors and researchers need to be well oriented.

― Shisir Manandhar, Kathmandu, Nepal

Train professors in detecting it, while at the same time give students the basic core-type course on plagiarism. At my college it comprised a decent percentage of a freshmen-level class. Ensure the administrators become aware of how damaging these incidents are to their reputation as an educator. This type of culture change will take time, and needs to happen from the very top.

― Chris Backe, Bangkok, Thailand, via Facebook

The big question is, why do Korean universities both tolerate and accept plagiarism in the first place? Academic dishonesty should never be tolerated. Why is it treated like a joke in Korea?

― Stacy Metzger, Seoul, via Facebook
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