A student studies at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea

South Korea's education ministry has been investigating papers that have high-school students named as co-authors.Credit: Kim Hong-Ji AUNI/REUTERS

The number of South Korean academics accused of naming children as co-authors on research manuscripts — even though the children did not contribute to the research — continues to grow. An education ministry report details 11 university academics who named high-school or middle-school-aged children on papers that the children allegedly did not contribute to. Nine of these are newly identified, bringing the total number accused to 17, and the total number of papers affected to 24, since the practice was first exposed in late 2017.

Five of the nine newly identified academics named their own children on papers, said the report. One named a child of an acquaintance, and the others had no special relationship to the children. It is thought that in some cases, the children were named on papers to boost their chances of winning university places, for which competition in the country is fierce. The papers the ministry has identified as problematic stretch back at least as far as 2007.

The report’s release comes amid intense national scrutiny of the way children of South Korea’s wealthy, well-connected ‘elite’ get accepted to university. Unjustified authorship is considered research misconduct in South Korea.

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The report follows an announcement by the education ministry in May, in which it said that it had found nine university academics who gave unjustified co-authorship to children. One of those, the ministry has now told Nature, was later absolved after the academic filed an objection. The eight other academics, along with the nine identified in the latest report, bring the total accused to 17.

In South Korea, research misconduct can carry harsh penalties. The education ministry says that disciplinary actions under consideration for the cases include reprimands, a one-year limitation on participating in national research activities, and dismissal. At least one academic, at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, has reportedly been dismissed, and another academic at the same university has been reprimanded over the allegations, the ministry says. When asked to confirm this, the university pointed Nature to the ministry report.

Misconduct uncovered

The practice of adding children to papers came under scrutiny in late 2017, when a case of child co-authorship was uncovered at Seoul National University. After that, the government launched an investigation, and in January 2018 the ministry said that it had identified 82 academic papers with child co-authors. On about half of the papers, the ministry said, students seemed to have participated in the research as part of a school programme, whereas on the other half they had not. At the time, the ministry did not say how many academics were involved, but said that it would refer the cases to university ethics committees to confirm whether the children’s involvement was legitimate.

The ministry and universities have now identified a total of 794 publications with child co-authors, of which 549 have been reviewed, the education minister Yoo Eun-hae said in a statement on 17 October. Of those, the ministry found that 24 papers had unjustified authorship. The ministry’s report did not say in which journals the problematic papers had been published.

Of the 11 university academics referred to in the latest report, the ministry highlights several cases in which a child got into university after citing an allegedly problematic co-authorship in their application.

So Young Kim, a science and technology political scientist at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, thinks the problem is likely to go far beyond those cases uncovered so far. “My impression is that this practice is more widespread than we might think,” she says.

Changgu Lee, a materials scientist at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, says that he doesn’t agree with papers being used for university entry. “I don’t like colleges emphasizing publications in admission process because high school students cannot be involved in research seriously, and because publication achievement can be misused for admission,” he says.