[OUTLOOK]Get to the root of the problemFormer Education Minister Kim Byong-joon resigned over a scandal after 18 days in office. South Korea’s education policy is about to drift again due to the administration’s practice of clinging to old-timers when hiring government officials, but good things can come out of this incident as well.
It is fortunate that this incident revealed the plagiarism in our academic field and the mismanagement of Brain Korea 21, a government project to sponsor academic activities. Former Education Minister Kim left us with the task of thoroughly changing the system of controlling academic studies and papers at universities.
In the 1970s, in Japan, the expression “everybody is a thief” was commonly used. It was a sarcastic remark aimed at widespread corruption by the leaders of the country.
Mr. Kim said something similar when he was accused of stealing data gathered by one of his pupils and publishing the same paper in two different journals under slightly different titles. He said, “Plagiarism in papers was a past practice in universities,” “I found out later that most major universities inflated their academic works,” and, “It is a common practice to publish the same paper in different journals as if they were different.” He probably said so in order to pass the blame onto others, but if his remarks are true, this is a serious problem.
Let’s put the plagiarism issue aside and take a look at Brain Korea 21. The government has been implementing this project for eight years using a tremendous budget in order to support universities’ research. Its outline is to provide scholarships to graduate and undergraduate students who carry out quality research projects. About 1.4 trillion won, or $1.5 billion, was paid out during the first round of the project, from 1999 through 2005. The second round started this year and 2.3 trillion won will be delivered to 568 research groups at 74 universities by 2012.
The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development plans that at the completion of this project, 21,000 doctorate and masters theses will be produced. It also expects Korea’s ranking for the number of papers in the Science Citation Index to jump from the current 13th into the top 10 countries. The ministry expects that cooperation between industry and universities will be enhanced and universities located in regions other than Seoul will become more competitive.
However, people become doubtful about these plans when looking at the poor system of evaluating and controlling papers. The Brain Korea 21 project began without a proper evaluation system and the situation has not improved.
Because this is a government project to support academic activities, the government should have digitized the research papers in order for other people to share the data and content. Instead, hard copies of research papers are submitted and kept in storage. Initially, important documents were kept for five years, but this rule has long disappeared. The questionable papers by Mr. Kim are now missing. In short, research papers have disappeared.
The evaluation of the research papers is not being done properly, either. For the first round of the Brain Korea 21 project, the contents of papers were not submitted but only the titles of the papers and the names of journals in which they were published. That is how Mr. Kim was able to hand in the same paper under slightly different titles without anyone noticing.
Last year, when the Korea Research Foundation was audited by the National Assembly, there was a claim that the evaluating team of the foundation had given positive evaluations of national universities although many of them had done few projects.
This year, the education ministry said it would strictly control academic papers, when starting the second round of the Brain Korea 21 project. After the recent Kim scandal broke, the ruling Uri Party decided to form a task force to oversee Brain Korea 21. However, it is unclear whether this plan will work because the government and universities still do not have a system to digitize research papers or an evaluation system for those papers. A person at the ministry confesses that there is hardly any system that sets standards for research papers and filters them accordingly.
Mr. Kim’s resignation does not end the scandal over the Brain Korea 21 project. The authorities should find out who else inflated their works and why a properly working management system is not in place. This does not need to be followed by punishment but is simply the right way to improve the project and to enhance the government’s capability to run it properly. We should break the pattern in which a project is implemented in a rush, problems are fixed temporarily and then everybody forgets about them.
This can be also a way to restore the honor of our universities, which are tarnished with accusations of unethical practices due to Mr. Kim’s remarks. The honor of those professors who work hard and ethically should be restored and the wrongdoings of other professors should be revealed. This is the right way to do away with the wrong practice of accepting plagiarism and inflating research papers. Our universities will then improve also. We should not allow people who commit academic wrongdoings to get away with them.
Brain Korea 21 has lost people’s trust. Some argue that the project should be halted. The Uri Party has formed a taskforce for the project and the education ministry plans to draft an act about researchers’ ethics. But the first thing to do is to figure out the exact problems of this issue.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Day-young