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Kid co-authors in South Korea spur government probe

Researchers sought to boost their children’s chances in university admissions.

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Students preparing to take the annual College Scholastic Ability Test in Korea, 2017.

Students preparing to take the annual College Scholastic Ability Test, a standardised exam for college entrance, at a high school in Seoul in November, 2017.Credit: Yeon-Je Jung/AFP/Getty

The South Korean government is expanding an investigation into researchers who named their children as co-authors on papers. The extended probe, announced on 1 February, comes after a government report last week identified 82 academic papers on which authors had named their children or relatives — many of them in middle or high school — as co-authors on the publications.

In some cases, the practice is thought to be intended to give the children an edge when applying to university, a highly competitive process in South Korea.

The papers were uncovered in a month-long review of articles written by more than 70,000 full-time university staff members across arts and sciences over 10 years. The review, conducted by the education ministry, was prompted by a single case of child authorship that came to light late last year, at Seoul National University.

The investigation results, released on 25 January, found examples from 29 Korean universities. In 39 of the papers, the students seemed to have participated in the research as part of a programme related to their school curriculum; the other 43 appeared not to have, according to the investigation.

Indexed papers

The ministry has not released the names of the researchers involved in the cases, or the journals in which they published. However, according to South Korean media reports, many of the papers appeared in journals included in the Science Citation Index (SCI). The ministry told Nature that the initial review relied on universities to self-report cases, and was not exhaustive because many staff were on winter holidays.

In its continuing probe, the education ministry intends to examine papers by South Korean authors indexed in citation databases, including SCI, Web of Science and Scopus, and to cross-check the names against the family relationships of 76,000 full-time faculty members. The investigation will run until 16 March.

The ministry intends to refer each case to the corresponding university’s research-ethics committee to confirm whether it constitutes misconduct or legitimate authorship. If the student co-authors did not participate in the research, academics will face possible disciplinary action, including dismissal, the ministry said.

So far, the most-affected universities include some of Seoul’s elite tertiary institutions: Sungkyunkwan University (eight cases), Yonsei University (seven cases), Seoul National University and Kookmin University (six each). A Sungkyunkwan spokesperson confirmed the university would be opening probes as per the ministry’s request, including possible penalties of dismissal.

An SNU spokesperson emphasized that there has not yet been any finding to suggest actual misconduct had occurred, and that its research integrity committee would investigate all cases. Yonsei University declined to answer Nature’s question about the investigation, pending further information from the government.

A spokesman for Kookmin University told Nature that an initial review of their cases indicated the collaborations were legitimate. “We have some records and notes that their children participated in a lot of activities. So we think we don't have any problem,” he said.

Media outrage

The revelation has sparked a national outcry. In an editorial, the Korea Herald called the acts “no less than fraud, which greatly threatens the integrity of universities and education as a whole in Korea”.

The education ministry said that any of the students listed as co-authors who did not participate in the research would have their university admission revoked.

The ministry also plans to require in the future that any co-authors who are minors must be indicated as such, says the Kyosu Shinmun, a newspaper covering higher education.

Nature 554, 154-155 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01512-5
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