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Piecework professors

The following statement was from a Western scientist who was visiting China and had viewed our Chinese graduate exams: "I could never do that. It is just wrong."

There are so many graduate students that the oral defenses of their master's theses and doctoral dissertations are scheduled back-to-back across full days. Here, it took four days to judge 31 graduate students. The panel of faculty who judge all of these are handed a small packet of money after they finish their task. This is what drew this Western scientist's reaction. He assumed this was a bribe -- and he was wrong.

This discussion occurred at the large round banquet table with many university scientists present, both Western and Chinese. The Chinese professors saw nothing wrong with this, and did not know how to reply. So it fell to me to try to bridge the understanding for both sides.

Chinese professors are paid dramatically low wages by world standards. Based on a "purchasing power parity index" where salaries are calculated on the cost of living in different countries, a joint survey by Boston College Center for International Higher Education and Moscow's Laboratory for Institutional Analysis at the National Research University Higher School of Economics found China's professors' salaries start at $259 per month and average $720, while U.S. professors start at $4,950 and average $6,054 per month.

Western professors are paid approximately 20 times higher on entry and average eight times more across their career. But under that position of academic responsibility, Western professors not only teach and conduct research but also sit on exam committees and take on other duties "for free." Our responsibility is to do what it takes "to get the job done," even if it means working nights and weekends.

But the Chinese professor's much lower pay applies to just the assigned teaching. Every additional task beyond this comes with a small payment. It is much like school teachers being paid extra for coaching after school. In China, professors actually might earn more money from these extra duties than from their base salary. As one administrator explained to me, it keeps them working hard.

I encountered this perspective approximately eight years ago while working with my China colleagues as they moved their journal to peer review. "Peer review" is a system where the editor sends out a submitted research article to other experts in the field for a careful check to be sure the science was done properly, the math analysis was accurate, etc.

I was asked: "How much are peer reviewers paid?"

"Generally nothing," I replied. "It is part of their academic duties."

"That's not going to work in China," was the response.

So today, our journal pays a small fee to the Chinese peer reviewer, or we never could get our articles reviewed. But it is made clear the fee is independent from whether the reviewed article is accepted or rejected, just as the university pay to faculty for their judgment of student theses and dissertation defenses is independent of whether the student passes or fails.

And Chinese professors are handsomely rewarded (by their standards) when they publish research in high-ranked international journals. But that is a story for another time.

So, did I convince the Western researchers around our table why it was OK and even necessary for Chinese professors to receive incremental payments for each bit of "piecework?" No.

I should have saved my breath and simply said: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.