In praise of folly

Sycophantic academic paper about mentor’s “nobility” draws fire online


A decade ago Xu Zhongmin was awarded a government grant of Rmb2 million ($288,317) to write a paper on the interplay of economics and ecology in the preservation of freshwater springs.

But at least two chapters of his paper were spent praising the “nobility” of his academic mentor Cheng Guodong, the “elegance” of Cheng’s wife Zhang Youfen, and the “perfection” of their relationship.

Xu has defended the bootlicking by saying that Cheng’s life had helped him form his worldview.

One particularly odd section showed how Cheng’s wife – “who smells of spring” – saw cooking and cleaning as an “obligation” to her husband, and that while she was “ignorant”, her “small” efforts allowed him to make greater contributions to the country.

“My advisor is an advocate for shooting colours in the sky. His spirit is magical yet perpetual, just like space,” Xu fawned.

The paper – which was publishing in 2013 – got past the peer review process and made it into the Chinese Academy of Science’s Journal of Glaciology and Cryology, which Cheng edits. And there it lay, dormant, until someone stumbled across it earlier this month and posted it online.

Cue a round of delighted disgust from netizens. “Is this an academic paper or a cheap romance novel?” asked one. “Time to reform Chinese universities and the rotten academic system,” wrote another.

As regular readers of WiC will know, cases of flawed conduct from academics are hardly unknown. According to a 2018 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there were 64 cases of academic dishonesty between 2007 and 2017. They came from 46 universities and one national research institute – many of which were ranked as top-tier institutions.

In 2018 “mentor abuse” also became a hot topic online after two doctoral students killed themselves after being made to carry out menial tasks for their academic mentors and being refused permission to transfer to other study programmes.

Some have suggested that Xu’s flattery was simply what was required to get ahead in his career. But his mentor Cheng claims that he didn’t read the paper before it was published. He has now resigned from his post at the journal concerned.

Xu still stands by his work saying his “flattering words came from a place of respect and admiration”. But the bureau which oversees academic publications at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has said it will now review all of Xu’s work.

No sooner had the scandal begun to die down than a second case emerged at another journal called Chinese Banker, published again under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

This time it was nepotism in the spotlight, with Wang Songqi, the journal’s editor, said to have published his son’s “work” for years, starting when the child was only 10.

Over the years the magazine hadcarried examples of the boy’s calligraphy, poems and paintings.

Wang wouldn’t apologise for putting the material into the financial magazine saying: “I have nothing to explain. I publish anything that is written well.”

The People’s Daily was incredulous, however. “Academic journals are not personal gardens. You can’t grow whatever you want,” it fumed. “If public resources are privatised for personal use, there is no norm and bottom line, which not only hurts the public interest, but also chills the hearts of rigorous and serious scholars, and destroys the academic ecology.”

Last year the government said it would spend more than Rmb200 million ($29 million) a year for five years to improve the standards of some 280 journals – the majority of which publish in English – and to increase submissions from international researchers.

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