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The Chinese (and certain other Asian nations, of course) are notorious for pirating brand-name merchandise: copyright and trademark protection seem to have no meaning. Plagiarism is said to be flagrant in the sciences, too. American scientists and scholars who work with Chinese graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are surprised to learn they must teach new arrivals not to borrow others’ work without acknowledgement – and the penalties for those who get caught.

“The Chinese have a real problem with respect for intellectual property. They seem to have selective amnesia,” Roy Schwarz said. Martha Hill, dean of Johns Hopkins’s School of Nursing, said the same: “They come here, or many do, with no awareness at all of the necessity to give attribution, full attribution, for any material taken from others’ work.” Another division of Hopkins recently expelled a Chinese graduate student for plagiarism. Sivin noted that an exposé of plagiarism as a general problem published in China got its senior Chinese author into much trouble.

Yet Western preconceptions get in the way of understanding and effective response. Duplicating the latest Rolling Stones album, putting a counterfeit designer label on a pair of jeans – such acts are unembarrassed thievery. Plagiarism in the sciences is not like that. Classically, in the West, science is held to be communal: methods are shared, results once published are for the use of all. In that world, priority is the one form of ownership, making the need for attribution absolute. Unpublished data may be a target for theft, but a risky one.

What’s really worth stealing are ideas, above all the knowledge that Ah ha, here is something new and the way to get it. This kind of theft is the greatest temptation and the hardest to detect. It occurs; it can be prevented only by that strongly developed scientific culture, the sense of community – that psychologically internalized ethos of science.

The skeptic might suppose that what happens in China is no different from what one sees in many Western laboratories, where the boss appropriates and publishes under his or her name the work of subordinates. But the Chinese tradition is fundamentally different. Simply put, scholars at all levels have always been expected to incorporate the work of others into their own. In older times, principled scholars acknowledged their borrowings, but that remained optional (as in the pre-19th-century West). The attitude goes back many centuries; today it seems still strongly internalized.

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