SEOUL — In one of the single biggest instances of misconduct we’ve ever come across, prosecutors in South Korea are seeking up to 18 months’ prison time for 75 professors who are among those charged with plagiarizing science and engineering textbooks wholesale.
Prosecutors say that since the 1980s, 179 professors at 110 universities across the country have been publishing other authors’ books under their own name, merely swapping the covers, making only cosmetic changes to the text, and assigning them to their classes. Thirty-eight titles are involved, ranging from architecture, civil engineering, fire fighting, mechanical engineering, and chemistry. Of the 179 charged, 23 are the books’ original authors, who allegedly continued to be cut royalties from the repurposed texts and hoped to maintain good relations with the publishers for future books. The plagiarists stood to boost their CVs for their yearly high-stakes evaluations, in addition to the book contracts. Five employees from the four publishing companies involved were also charged.
Seventy-five of the professors have been formally indicted without detention on charges of copyright infringement, and will face a bench trial by judge. (Juries are rarely used in South Korean criminal proceedings.) The prosecutor’s district office in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, is in charge of the case; the bureau’s chief, Soon-jeong Kwon, told us they will be seeking jail sentences ranging from six to eighteen months. The maximum penalty under Korean copyright law is five years in prison and fines of up to 50 million won (US $42,300).
The remaining 105 professors have been summarily indicted, meaning they will face swifter proceedings with no court appearances—although if convicted, they can appeal for a full bench trial. Prosecutors are seeking fines of 3 million won (USD $2540) for the 23 original authors and 10 million won ($8460) for the plagiarists.
All are in jeopardy of losing their jobs. By law, should any of them get prison time, they will be automatically dismissed. In addition, most universities have policies that result in dismissal if a professor is fined 3 million won or more. Even if the eventual amounts are less, internal deliberations could also lead to dismissal or early retirement, says Young-chan Bae, a professor of chemical engineering at Hanyang University in Seoul and former head of the directorate for academic promotion of Korea’s National Research Foundation. “I think about 80 to 90% [will get] fired or something,” he told us. “They will have to leave.”
According to Kwon, an ex-employee from one of the publishers came forward to blow the whistle on the practice in August, prompting investigators to raid the publishers and question employees through November. Prosecutors first announced the charges on November 24 and filed them on December 14. Trials will likely begin in January—one for each of the 38 textbooks in question—and last two to three months.
Following standard practice in Korea under the presumption of innocence, prosecutors have not released the names of the accused. They are currently in the process of notifying the defendants’ universities, but officially, they haven’t announced those, either—only statistics breaking down the numbers of professors grouped by their geographic region. However, at least one outlet reports the affected institutions include two of the nation’s top private universities, Yonsei University and Korea University, and several of its flagship national universities. When we asked public relations at Yonsei and Korea, they told us they were still waiting to hear from prosecutors for official notification.
We reached out to the Seoul law firm Kim and Chang—one of Korea’s largest—which Kwon said was defending several clients; they declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.
We also contacted the Korea Federation of National University Professor Associations, and the organization’s head, Geun-ho Choi, condemned the conduct. He told us,
I think everybody [doesn’t] understand how that kind of things happen. In common sense, we cannot do that… Our organization doesn’t agree [with] that kind of thing. We don’t understand.
None of these textbooks were exactly bestsellers: The prosecution says that each plagiarized title sold between 100 and 1000 copies—mostly at campus bookstores to the students in the authors’ classes.
As for why any professor would attempt to steal an entire book—or go along with a publisher’s scheme to do so—we asked Bae. He pointed out that Korea’s government mandates yearly evaluations for non-tenured faculty, applying the same requirements at all institutions. This exacerbates the pressure at institutions with fewer resources:
That’s the problem, anyway. Some top level universities, they have good graduate students and good facilities and good infrastructure, but some lower universities—they don’t have that. But all universities [have the same requirements].
Bae also said he and most of his colleagues were “shocked” and “really ashamed” of the scandal. Still, he noted that there are tens of thousands of engineering professors in Korea, so only a small minority – less than 1% — were involved.
Several newspapers in Korea have condemned the professors in editorials. The Chosun Ilbo, the nation’s most-circulated daily newspaper, blasted the accused, calling the acts “the worst kind of cheating, one that can’t even be compared to plagiarism.” The English-language daily Korea Herald called the practice “outrageous” and “deplorable,” further lamenting, “We cannot make Korea an advanced country without elevating the standard of scholarship.”
A wave of plagiarism stories has been in the headlines in Korea in recent weeks. Just last month, the Astrophysical Journal retracted a black hole physics paper by the nation’s most famous teenaged STEM prodigy, after determining the majority of the paper was lifted from a 2002 conference paper written by his co-author and PhD advisor.
When prosecutors filed charges against the textbook scheme last Monday, it wasn’t even the only plagiarism scandal that day: The popular Korean variety show “Running Man” apologized the same day for ripping off a game show segment from a Japanese show.
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