Kyoto University, located in Kyoto, Japan, is a prestigious university that is best known for producing more Nobel laureates than any other university in Asia. However, the school recently acknowledged a less than desirable first in its 124-year history, the school revoked its first doctorate degree.
Former student Jin Jing was awarded a doctorate from the school in 2012 from the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies. Much of that degree hinged upon his doctoral thesis, which was entitled, On Reflexive Pronouns in Japanese and Chinese Languages.
However, in 2019 the school received tips that the thesis had issues with plagiarism. This began a multi-year investigation where the student admitted that they had “neglected to annotate citations”.
By August 2020, the school confirmed some 11 instances of dishonesty an earlier work the student had submitted and noted that the thesis was “almost a reappropriation” of that work. The instances of dishonesty include nine where other’s ideas were borrowed without attribution and amounting to plagiarism.
At a press conference Tuesday, the school’s executive vice-president for education offered an apology for not catching these violations sooner and said that the school will work to improve its ethics programs.
The school also noted that the student’s doctoral adviser also likely shares responsibility, but no punishment will be handed down as they retired five years ago.
While this might seem like a mundane story of a university investigating plagiarism and choosing to revoke a degree, this is a story that was virtually unheard of just a few years ago but now is becoming increasingly common, including in Japan.
Why Degree Revocation is Becoming More Common
Revoking a degree is still an exceptional step that universities rarely take, and it’s only used in extreme circumstances. Typically, a degree revocation requires either an administrative error or some severe fraud to have been discovered.
However, rare is still a far cry from “once unheard of”, which is how one Australian paper described it in 2018. While statistics on degree revocation are rare, revocations are definitely becoming more common.
Over the past decade, such revocations have become much more common in Europe and regularly make the news when politicians are having their degrees challenged. The United States has also seen its share of degree revocations, including former Senator John Walsh.
However, in other parts of the world, it is even more rare and that includes Japan. As the school noted, Kyoto University has never revoked a degree in its 124-year history.
But the tide may be turning there. Jing is not alone as, in a separate case, a student at Tokyo Medical and Dental University had their doctorate revoked not due to misconduct, but because cell lines used in her work were contaminated. This came a week after a researcher in China had their medical degree revoked when it was learned they had used an essay mill to write their dissertation.
For much of the past decade degree revocation was largely seen as a European and North American problem. Now, however, it’s taking a bigger place on the global stage. Because of that, we’re going to see an increase in the number of stories where degrees are pulled.
However, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to become much more common. Universities still must weigh the hazards and benefits of revoking a degree. Revoking a degree requires thorough investigations, often taken years to complete, can embarrass the school and come with legal risks.
In cases where plagiarism or other misconduct is found after the fact, schools often try to find ways to correct the issue while leaving the degree intact. This can include requiring a thesis to be rewritten or quietly retracting the paper at issue.
Still, degree revocation is becoming more common and is being seen in more parts of the world. It’s likely we haven’t heard the end of this issue and won’t for some time to come.
Degree revocation will always be a last resort for schools. Hopefully as schools pour more effort into enforcing academic integrity standards, more of these cases will be caught before the degree is given, making it unnecessary.
However, for those that do slip through the cracks, schools will still be reluctant due to the potential for reputational harm and potential legal issues.
That said, schools across the globe are becoming more and more willing to take this drastic step. Though many schools definitely have a culture of ignoring issues with student work once they leave, we’re seeing increasing pushback with more and more schools taking responsibility and addressing these issues.
For students, this should be a sharp reminder that a degree isn’t something you earn and check off. It’s something that you carry with you for your whole life. As such, if you don’t earn it properly or take unethical shortcuts, you can have it revoked.
It may still be rare, as it should be, but the fact that it is becoming both more normal and more global should give would-be cheaters some pause.