News / Asia

Plagiarism Imperiling South Korea's Academic Reputation

SEOUL -  The South Korean education system has won global praise. U.S. President Barack Obama has held it up as an example, saying America should emulate some aspects of it. But, in South Korea some of the top universities are facing criticism for numerous high-profile cases of plagiarism. And, some insiders acknowledge such cheating is well entrenched.

At one of South Korea's premier educational institutions, Seoul National University, two professors are being accused of fabricating stem cell research in papers submitted to international journals.

It echoes a case at the same school in 2005 when a high-profile professor, Hwang Woo-suk, faced global condemnation for manipulating cloning experiments.

In recent months, two lawmakers also faced allegations of copying work for their doctoral dissertations. In past years, a president of a highly-regarded university and an education minister also lost their jobs when it was revealed they had also fabricated academic work.

A graduate student at Korea University, who only wants to be identified by his surname Kim, says he noticed when he was enrolled in secondary schools and colleges in the United States the concept of plagiarism was pretty well established.

“In Korea that history may not be as long. So there still isn’t a huge consensus, in general, amongst all Koreans as to what plagiarism actually means," he said. "What’s the extent of plagiarism and whether plagiarism itself is acceptable or not?”

At the Seoul National University of Education, ethics education professor Lee In-jae says all of the high-profile incidents demonstrate even top South Korean officials are insensitive to plagiarism.

The professor says such revelations cause reputations to instantly collapse. And, if South Korea's academic society ever wants to reach a world-class level then it must rid itself of such ethical problems.

When education minister, Lee Ju-ho, was asked the how seriously he takes the problem he replied it is not as bad as it used to be.

Lee says these incidents became prominent seven or eight years ago, but the problem has mainly disappeared since then because of increased awareness and training. But he says he wants to put more effort into eradicating plagiarism.

Korea University student Kim says the scant efforts being made to educate college students about the matter are actually not very effective.

“Korean universities usually have at least one class or some kind of seminar in the beginning of the semester to talk about plagiarism. But as far as I know it is also quite optional," Kim stated. "So there are a lot of people who just don’t go to the seminar.”

Professor Lee at the Seoul National University of Education  says educating students to understand it is unethical to make even seemingly minor mistakes, such as not citing references, needs to be taught in elementary schools.

The ethics educators say, if young students learn it is wrong to copy their classmates homework, then they will be able to do honest term papers when they reach university or proper research if they become professionals.

Students such as Kim have noticed that professors from the United Kingdom and the United States on his campus are having a positive effect.

“One professor in my grad school found a student plagiarizing and automatically gave that student a zero," said Kim. "And I am hearing more of those [incidents] these days.”

But so many students still appear to have no hesitation about ethical shortcuts that a lucrative online industry has been created to cater to them. Brokers match graduate students with those willing to ghostwrite. A master's thesis can be custom authored for as little as $1,400 while dissertations for a PhD are being offered from about $2,700.

A JoongAng newspaper report quotes a broker saying their main customers are businessmen and office workers lacking time to do academic research, but in a hurry to obtain advanced degrees to give them an advantage over their peers in South Korea's highly competitive society.

Additional reporting by Youmi Kim.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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