Peking University graduate Yu Yanru has filed a lawsuit against her former school in the Haidan district, alleging that the university illegally revoked her degree over allegations of plagiarism.
Yu, who received her doctorate in 2013, found herself at the center of a plagiarism controversy shortly after graduation when the Chinese Journal of Journalism and Communication reported that Yu had plagiarized in a thesis she had submitted and the journal had published.
This prompted Peking University to announce that it would revoke Yu’s doctorate and graduate degrees as well as other certificates if the accusation turned out to be true. After an investigation, it went through with its threats.
However, Yu has hit back, filing suit against the school saying that the revocation is against national policy. According to Yu, schools can only revoke degrees when the student’s degree thesis was found to be plagiarized but the one submitted to the journal was a separate work.
The school claims it acted within the lines of the nation’s policies.
While such lawsuits are a novelty in China, they’ve been surprisingly frequent in the United States, where students who are expelled or otherwise reprimanded for plagiarism frequently take to courts to plead their case, usually with little success.
Likewise, a similar lawsuit failed in Germany when for Education Minister Annette Schavan unsuccessfully took to the courts to fight the revocation of her doctorate.
Still, some students have been successful in similar lawsuits in China. One student, who sent a peer to take an exam for him and was expelled, successfully got the court to force the school take him back on the grounds that it violated his right to an education.
The most recently lawsuit, however, is the natural outcome of China’s recent efforts to crack down on academic dishonesty. The country has enacted new regulations that strongly punish those who are caught cheating, plagiarizing or committing any kind of academic fraud.
As China is learning, tough policies are only the beginning of dealing with academic dishonesty. Policies have to be backed up with tough, fair and consistent enforcement.
And therein lies one of the bigger challenge. Even if publications, grant-funding institutions, universities and other academic bodies support and enforce the new standards, they’ll mean little if they don’t hold up in court.
If plagiarists can trivially turn to the courts to overturn any decision made against them, the policies will inevitably fall apart.
So while the outcome of Yu’s case is up in the air, the case could wind up being significant to China’s future when it comes to matters of academic integrity, especially if the court provides an easy way for plagiarists to escape their punishments.