Leta Hong Fincher accuses Roseann Lake of ripping off her research into ‘leftover women’

In her new book, Lake fails to once mention Hong Fincher who wrote a seminal book on the same subject in 2014

A book brouhaha is currently boiling over on the China expert Twittersphere over the subject of academic integrity.

Last week, the Economist’s Roseann Lake published her book Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower through W. W. Norton & Company.

The book explores the concept of so-called “leftover women,” (剩女), a term that has become popular in Chinese culture to describe women who are of marriageable age, but haven’t yet tied the knot, usually because they are focusing on their own personal goals and careers.

Roseann Lake

While the book cites more than 30 experts, none of them have written anything about “leftover women.” Meanwhile, no mention is made of author and researcher Leta Hong Fincher, who published what many consider to be the seminal book on the subject back in 2014, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

While the lives of China’s “leftover women” have been widely reported and Hong Fincher certainly doesn’t hold a copyright on the popular term, it’s certainly odd that Lake fails to cite such an influential work as Leftover Women, one which closely parallels her own subject matter.

Leta Hong Fincher

The fact that Lake fails to mention Hong Fincher anywhere in her new book struck a number of China experts as shady at best and something that deserves to be addressed.

Yesterday, Lake responded to the criticism in a short blog post, acknowledging that she was “grateful” for Hong Fincher’s work, had corresponded with her in the past, and had cited her work in articles that she wrote in 2012.

However, she claimed to have purposely not read Hong Fincher’s book, in order to “stay focused” on her own stories, concluding that:

The topic of gender and dating dynamics is such a fascinating lens through which to understand modern China, and as is true of so many China stories, it is complex, nuanced, and benefits from multiple perspectives. I recognize Leta’s important contributions to the topic and the awareness she has raised for it. The women I interviewed led me to see things from a different perspective and I have relied on the work of other scholars, as referenced in my book, to relay their stories.My publisher stands with me as I say that ultimately, we are all rooting for the same women.

Clearly, Hong Fincher was not happy with this response. In a Twitter thread she explains how she wrote a groundbreaking article for Ms. Magazine in November 2011 titled “China’s ‘Leftover’ Women.” Lake apparently liked the article so much that she sent an email to Hong Fincher, asking to meet and “exchange ideas.”

Hong Fincher writes that afterward the two began exchanging emails, and, in March 2012, Lake published an article for Salon, “All the shengnu ladies,” which Hong Fincher claims contains “a lot of ideas and translations” that could only have come from her Ms. Magazine piece.

While Lake does mention Hong Fincher further down in the piece, she fails to assign her with any importance. “She buries my groundbreaking discoveries by quoting six other experts in the same piece,” Hong Fincher writes.

Hong Fincher argues that even if Lake has not read her 2014 book, she still should have cited one of her earlier pieces which had apparently inspired her thinking about “leftover women.”

In addition, Hong Fincher explains that she has decided to go public with her complaints because this is the second time that “someone has tried to pass off my research on ‘leftover’ women as their own.”

“This is not fun for me. I can’t sleep. I am in agony. I wonder if I should give up writing because I am not getting any rewards for my years of extremely hard work,” she writes. “Someone else is profiting from the groundwork I laid and doesn’t even bother to put me in an obscure footnote.”

In her call for attribution, Hong Fincher has received an outpouring of support on Twitter from other China experts and authors:

Here’s a rather scathing assessment of the controversy from Rebecca Karl, a well-respected China scholar teaching at New York University:

With regard to the above-referenced book — a review of which was posted yesterday on MCLC — I would like to draw attention to the fact that the author, Roseann Lake, appears to nowhere acknowledge in print how much her work and her text are indebted to Leta Hong-Fincher, whose 2014 book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Lake’s work closely parallels. Lake seems to poach upon the latter’s research, thematics, and acumen, while never citing Hong-Fincher as either source or inspiration. Since Hong-Fincher’s 2011 Ms. magazine article on “leftover women,” through to the publication of her book in 2014, Lake has been in contact with Hong-Fincher a number of times; Hong-Fincher even sent Lake an early summary of the book’s argument and research in the form of a paper written in 2012 for a Sociology conference. In addition, Lake has been at numerous of Hong-Fincher’s presentations in Beijing. In short, Lake was well aware of Hong-Fincher’s work and the thematics of Lake’s book are very similar to Hong-Fincher’s. And yet Lake has deliberately presented her work as unique and as uniquely her own.
This is very troubling. At the very least, Lake should acknowledge publicly the prior work upon which her narrative and analysis stand, and Norton, her publisher, should compel her to do so. As of 2/16, Norton has written to Hong-Fincher to acknowledge the problem and apologize. It is unclear what remedy will be pursued.

Meanwhile, the influential online magazine ChinaFile, which includes interviews with authors who are publishing books about China, have made the decision to take down their interview with Lake, explaining that they do not feel confident that her work “respects basic scholarly and journalistic principles.”

Leta Hong Fincher has a new book coming out later this year, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, you can pre-order it here.

For even more on “leftover women,” check out an interview we conducted with Hong Fincher in 2014.

[Editor’s Note: 02/21, 5 am] A previous version of this story wrongly implied that in her book, Lake explored a concept which was first argued by Hong Fincher that the Chinese government is purposefully employing and propagating the term “leftover women” to pressure urban, educated women into marrying.

Hong Fincher has hinted at doing a comparison between her book and Lake’s, so far no one has found any instances of plagiarism on Lake’s part.