Are most academic theses merely regurgitating others’ work?

JISHOU, HUNAN — This question is addressed in all seriousness to you academics out there, specifically those with more experience reading bachelor’s and master’s theses in Western countries. I ask because most theses that I’ve been reading here just seem to be retreads of the same basic paper, with little or no original thought in them.

Students ask me to read over their theses, for grammar and what not. Maybe in all I’ve read a dozen bachelor’s or master’s thesis, which for the most part are absolute drivel. The assignment seems to be a pro forma exercise toward obtaining their degree. Whether the paper makes any contribution to world knowledge seems not so important.

Is this strictly a Chinese thing? Or is it because this university is a third-tier institution? Or is it more widespread? In other words, are most American graduation theses also merely summaries of what others have published?

Let me explain further. Our Business English majors have to write a 6,000 to 8,000 word graduation paper in English in their senior year. The college has a list of about 50 suitable topics, such as, the difficulties of the translation of contracts, cross-cultural business negotiation strategies, the translation of movie and TV subtitles, or choosing appropriate brand names and trademarks for foreign trade. Since we graduate more than 100 students each year, inevitably some students end up choosing the same topic.

There may be several reasons why the college encourages students to choose their topics from this list. As far as I know, very few students have developed their own topics.

Master’s theses, of course, are more original, but in my very limited experience with those, not much more original. There is the required review of the literature, of course, but after reviewing what others have written about topic X, there is little or no original contribution to the subject. It’s like the same topic gets reused over and over until it practically falls apart from age.

Plagiarism, I’ve found, is endemic here. That’s a large part of the problem. Colleges do check papers for originality, but plagiarism applications can be fooled if the writer paraphrases or summarizes sufficiently. And the penalties for plagiarism are next to nothing, at least where I teach. (I won’t even go into how widespread cheating on the national English and computer exams is. Some proctors choose to ignore it, while others are very strict. There is no uniformity in quashing cheating, if indeed there is any requirement to stop it.)

But I don’t want to malign China’s scholarship as being largely unoriginal without knowing if unoriginality is an issue in most universities around the world. I’m hoping some university professors reading this can give me an idea.

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