By Yun Suh-young
Is the recent outburst of plagiarism cases evidence of Korea’s numbness to the crime or is it proof that society here is becoming more transparent?
Both apparently, as the act had, until now, not been considered a crime and was left unrecognized if one cleverly managed to hide it away. Not anymore.
Yeom Dong-yeol, a lawmaker-elect of the ruling Saenuri Party, is under attack for allegedly plagiarizing his dissertation, following the plagiarism scandal involving International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Moon Dae-sung who quit the party a few days earlier.
Moon, a Saenuri lawmaker-elect for the 19th National Assembly, quit after Kookmin University confirmed on April 20 that he plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Yeom, who also received a Ph.D. at Kookmin, is also criticized for copying an undergraduate students’ report for his doctoral dissertation. He allegedly downloaded the student’s report online paying 1,000 won.
Students and teachers at the university have called on the two lawmakers-elect to give up their seats, saying it was shameful to have them represent the people, and urged the university to reflect on itself and search for any other plagiarists.
Immediately following Moon’s scandal, Saenuri leader Park Geun-hye made a public apology for the party’s failure to carefully examine its candidates.
Not even surprising
Sadly, the fact the two lawmakers-elect plagiarized their doctoral dissertations is not even surprising to the public; not because they are particularly unabashed but because plagiarism is quite prevalent in Korean society.
“Moon is an example of just another corrupt politician. Of course he should resign because he is typical of a man without a conscience. But Moon’s case seems to be the norm rather than an exception,” said Jeffrey White, a professor who teaches ethics at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), on a local English radio program, Wednesday.
“We really can’t take plagiarism seriously unless we take the problem of education seriously. The goal of education is self-transformation _ to become a better person. You become a more moral person when you become a better person. Sadly, people who rise to the top are the ones more likely to cheat.”
Lee Jun-seok, a member of the emergency committee of the ruling party, said on the same program, “It’s sad how Korean people have become numb to plagiarism.”
“I think his Ph.D. degree played a great role in his being selected as an IOC member and a professor. His professorship and IOC membership also played a great role in this election,” said Lee.
Education numb to plagiarism
Is college education in Korea the cause of the problem? Yes and no.
College students and graduates say that Korean professors tend to be more lenient toward students who plagiarize.
“I’m very conscious about referencing and paraphrasing ever since I got a D for plagiarizing in an English class by a foreign professor,” said Lee Ji-hyun, a junior at a private university in Seoul.
“He told us how to reference the sources but I was a freshman when I took the course and I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. But he spotted the part that I plagiarized and gave me a D. I have always made sure to reference sources ever since.”
But Lee said Korean professors were quite different.
“When I took classes with Korean professors, they didn’t seem like they cared much about students plagiarizing. It was only during the basic writing class in my first year that I was taught how to reference. Professors assume we know how to reference in second or third year classes so they don’t explain to us how to reference in detail.”
A graduate of a four-year college in Seoul, surnamed Kang, also said Korean professors were lenient on the matter.
“Foreign professors are quite strict on plagiarism so they tell us in detail how to reference sources. Korean professors, on the other hand, leave it to their assistants to grade the papers. Some don’t even recognize it when we submit the same paper we submitted the previous semester,” he said.
“Students who plagiarize face expulsion in foreign schools, but in Korea, they just get an F grade and that’s it. I think Korean schools aren’t properly educating their students on writing ethics. Except those who are ethically correct, students think of plagiarism not as a crime but something they can get away with if nobody finds out.”
Yielding to mounting public pressure, Moon tendered his resignation as a professor at Dong-A University in Busan in late April. But he shows no sign of revoking his status as a lawmaker-elect.
Tradition numbs conscience
Korea’s social tradition also played a role in numbing Korean scholars to plagiarism, experts say.
“Under the Confucian tradition, pupils were taught to copy the words of their teachers when they learned in village schools instead of writing their own opinions. Such a tendency must have prevented students from being creative,” said Heo Nam-kyol, a professor at the Department of Ethical Culture at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“Students seemed to think their efforts only had authority only if they cited their instructors’ work.”
In Western society, however, students who criticized their teachers became famous for doing so such as Aristotle, Heo said. In Korean society, this was considered a taboo.
“Teachers even nowadays become pleased when students cite their work in their papers. Such thoughts might have numbed teachers from feeling guilty about plagiarism. Of course, the lack of education on ethical issues also contributes to the numbness,” said Heo.
The professor, however, pointed out that the phenomenon of publicly criticizing plagiarists is a good sign.
“The fact that such issues are rising to the surface these days shows that society’s ethics level has risen drastically. The consciousness comes from more people receiving higher education. Even 30 years ago, there weren’t that many people who graduated from college but into the 2000s the numbers grew exponentially,” said Heo.
“I really do think making a big issue out of plagiarism is a desirable phenomenon. I hope our society can become conscious about ethical issues not only in terms of behavior and thought, but also in terms of copyright and literary works.”