A New Twist in College Admissions Scandals With a Chinese Flavor

December 7, 2020 Updated: December 9, 2020


College admissions scandals occupied the headlines of many news outlets recently.

An Insider report lists more than 50 people who have been charged and have pled guilty to federal charges related to the scandal, which even involved celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, as well as executives at prominent companies, venture-capital firms, and law offices.

The colleges involved include some of the most prestigious institutions: Yale, Stanford, and UCLA. Most recently, a Maryland CEO paid a former fencing coach $1.5 million in bribes to get his sons accepted to Harvard, feds say.

Amid the high-profile crackdowns on fraud in college admissions, a new and more subtle scheme has developed. Unlike the scandals already exposed, where outright frauds such as bribing college athletic coaches and faking standardized exam results were committed, the new scheme seeks to publish academic papers with the candidate student being named as an author, sometimes even the first author.

This scheme is much less prone to being discovered, and yet hits one of the key buttons in the admissions process at many of the most prestigious institutions. Many top universities look for maturity beyond the average high school student in addition to excellent grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. A research paper published in an academic journal would greatly enhance a student’s chance of getting into a top-notch university.

However, it’s usually almost impossible to do so, mainly because of resource and timing limitations. It usually takes well over a year between the time a paper is ready and the time it is published due to academic magazines’ publishing cycle and peer review processes. A student wishing to take this route would have to start the research in his or her high school freshman year at the latest in order for the paper to be published in time for the college admissions process. And the work still needs to be publication-worthy.

These limitations aren’t an issue for parents who have connections and a strong will to help their children jump the line, especially for people who have connections to China, which has unfortunately been the paper mill for academic research, or where purchased authorship has been notoriously popular.

Laser Physics

Julia Zhu, born and raised in the United States, a recent high school graduate, took this route and produced two journal papers at the masters/doctorate level in laser physics in summer 2018, when she was still a 10th grader, together with a doctorate adviser, full professor Bai-Song Xie, of Beijing Normal University in China. Then, one journal retracted one of the papers due to research misconduct.

Despite this known, very recent record of ethical violation or academic misconduct, she was still accepted by Stanford for the class of 2024. Furthermore, she was awarded honorable mention for the most prestigious high school research award Davidson Fellows. Ironically, the No. 1 core value for the organization is integrity or honesty. Neither Stanford nor Davidson responded to a request for comment.

Allegedly, the work behind the paper was done in the summer of 2018 when Zhu was in 10th grade. However, when reviewed by professionals familiar with the field, the paper was deemed at least at the masters/doctorate level, well beyond what the knowledge base of even her prestigious private boarding high school could provide. Normally, a master’s thesis takes one to two years, a doctorate thesis takes about five years.

In addition to requiring knowledge of specialized laser physics (Thomson backscattering, Einstein’s theory of relativity, electrodynamics, and radiation, and so on), the math behind the paper is also tremendously daunting, involving advanced tools such as partial differential equations, differential-integral equations, vector form of Fourier transforms, and so on. The 32-page draft paper appeared in ArXivin December 2018.

On Jan. 21, 2019, Zhu-Xie submitted a paper “Nonlinear enhanced effects on Thomson backscattering by magnetic field and amplitude modulating of laser field” to the European EuroPhysics Letter (EPL), and was published on May 30, 2019.

Then, on Feb. 12, 2019, Zhu-Xie submitted a nearly identical paper with a totally different title—“Thomson backscattering in combined uniform magnetic and envelope modulating circularly polarized laser fields”—to the American Journal of the Optical Society of America B (JOSA B), and was published on June 14, 2019.

But on Sept. 30, 2019, JOSA B retracted their paper on the grounds of self-plagiarism (significant overlap with another article by these same two authors without proper citation).


As stated before, the significant overlap without proper citation is self-plagiarism, or cheating. It is a serious breach of ethics, as defined in Optical Society of America (OSA)’s “Editorial on Plagiarism” (February 2013):

“Plagiarism is a serious breach of ethics and is defined as the substantial replication, without attribution, of significant elements of another document already published by the same or other authors.”

This violation by Zhu-Xie was captured in various publications, including Retraction Watch and Research Gate.

This double submission appears to be intentional: 1. The two papers were submitted on two different continents (EPL in Europe and JOSA B in the United States); 2. The papers carried totally different titles; 3. The papers didn’t cite each other; and 4. The dates of submission, revision, acceptance, and publication for both papers are very close to each other, no more than 2 to 3 weeks apart.

These four items effectively reduce the possibility of being suspected and caught by the editor-in-chief for double submission. Both papers carry the same 33 numbered equations in the main body. There were many opportunities for Zhu-Xie to withdraw either of the two papers (submission, revision, acceptance, publication, and even after publication), but it doesn’t appear that they did. There are a total of 3 1/2 months from the JOSA B publication date of June 14, 2019, to the retraction date of Sept. 30, 2019.

There are reasons to suspect that Zhu-Xie misled both journals on purpose: Conventionally and even more so recently, all authors have to sign an author integrity form in order to be published, which means they committed to both journals that each paper was original and wouldn’t be published elsewhere. As both journals published both papers, it is only logical that both authors were aware of their actions of wrongdoing.

Anxious Parents

This ethical violation casts a shadow upon the integrity of both authors. Zhu is the first author for both papers. Being the first author, Zhu has primary and inescapable responsibility for this clear case of intentional double submission. One’s position as the first author means accepting both the credit and potential consequences of publication.

In, for example, the notable Operation Varsity Blues case, a conspiracy to influence admissions decisions, being a high school student at the time didn’t exempt anyone from being reprimanded. Universities and award organizations can rescind college acceptances and awards granted for past inappropriate behavior.

Any attempt of avoiding responsibility or downplaying the consequences simply attests to additional dishonesty. By the way, how did Zhu herself handle her paper retraction in her college application and Davidson award application? How were these acts of academic misconduct remediated by the two authors? So far, her ride has been very smooth, despite her documented ethical violations. Nobody seemed to care.

Sometimes, parents do overdo it and get caught. A sixth grader in China won the Chinese National Science and Innovation Competition with a paper “C10orf67 in colorectal cancer in the development of the function and mechanism research.”

It was later discovered that the sixth grader’s parents authored the paper and had it published in the child’s name. The national award was stripped and the parents were disgraced. This was also targeted toward admission to elite colleges.

With trade wars and tit-for-tat closure of consulates, the United States and China are locked into confrontations in many fields. But that doesn’t stop anxious Chinese parents from using every trick they can to squeeze their often only child into the most prestigious American universities.

Unlike schemes taken in other college admission scandals, the fake authorship of academic papers appears to be quite effective and yet involves no worry of federal criminal prosecution.

This scheme is much more subtle than other college admissions scandals, because it’s difficult to have a smoking gun proving any wrongdoing, despite mounting circumstantial and substantial evidence. The potential benefits seem to outweigh the risks of being caught.

Qiushi Liu is a seasoned aerospace engineering consultant who is interested in safeguarding ethics in research and academic integrity.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.