Fraud scandals sap China's dream of becoming a science superpower
BEIJING: Having conquered world markets and challenged US political and military leadership, China has set its sights on becoming a global powerhouse in a different field: scientific research. It now has more laboratory scientists than any other country, outspends the entire European Union on research and development, and produces more scientific articles than any other nation except the United States.
But in its rush to dominance, China has stood out in another, less boastful way. Since 2012, the country has retracted more scientific papers because of faked peer reviews than all other countries and territories put together, according to Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks and seeks to publicize retractions of research papers.
Now, a recent string of high-profile scandals over questionable or discredited research has driven home the point in China that to become a scientific superpower, it must first overcome a festering problem of systemic fraud.
"China wants to become a global leader in science," said Zhang Lei, a professor of applied physics at Xi'an Jiaotong University. "But how do you achieve that and still preserve the quality of science? We still haven't figured out how to do that yet."
In April, a scientific journal retracted 107 biology research papers, the vast majority of them written by Chinese authors, after evidence emerged that they had faked glowing reviews of their articles. Then, this summer, a Chinese gene scientist who had won celebrity status for breakthroughs once trumpeted as Nobel Prize-worthy was forced to retract his research when other scientists failed to replicate his results.
At the same time, a government investigation highlighted the existence of a thriving online black market that sells everything from positive peer reviews to entire research articles.
President Xi Jinping, whose leadership is expected to be reaffirmed at a Communist Party congress that begins next week, has stated his goal of turning China into "a global scientific and technology power" by 2049. But the revelations have been a setback to this effort.
China has, of course, made enormous strides in science, research and technology. Worried that its economy is still too dependent on low-end manufacturing, the government is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in developing high-tech industries like semiconductors, solar panels, artificial intelligence, medical technologies and electric cars.
China has built extensive infrastructure across the country, with roads, railroads, ports and bridges that exhibit enviable engineering prowess. And it has reshaped many other parts of the world by exporting its expertise, offering it yet another way to drive its rapid economy growth.
But it has also endured problems of piracy and poor quality that have plagued its economic rise, blemishing what has been an otherwise dramatic entry into the ranks of the world's leading scientific nations.
China has made inroads partly because of its willingness to invest in new research at a time when such spending has stagnated in countries like the United States and Japan. The government in Beijing has poured the equivalent of billions of dollars into new projects to catch up with the West in producing original research, and also reverse decades of scientific brain drain by luring home top Western-trained Chinese researchers.
"The state needs the strategic support of science and technology more urgently than any other time in the past," Xi said last year in announcing the 2049 goal. "The situation that our country is under others' control in core technologies of key fields has not changed."
Now there are worries that persistent problems of academic fraud and lax standards exposed by the recent scandals could slow China's ascent.
Scandals over faked research results have shaken many countries, including Japan, the United States and South Korea. But fraud appears to be especially widespread in Chinese academic institutions, as seen in the large number of retracted articles and faked peer reviews.
In part, these numbers may simply reflect the enormous scale of the world's most populous nation. But Chinese scientists also blame what they call the skewed incentives they say are embedded within their nation's academic system.
As in the West, career advancement can often seem to be based more on the quantity of research papers published rather than the quality. However, in China, scientists there say, this obsession with numerical goal posts can reach extremes.
Compounding the problem, they say, is the fact that Chinese universities and research institutes suffer from a lack of oversight, and mete out weak punishments for those who are caught cheating.
Put these together and the result is an academic system that is willing to wink at ethical lapses, they say.
"In America, if you purposely falsify data, then your career in academia is over," Zhang said. "But in China, the cost of cheating is very low. They won't fire you. You might not get promoted immediately, but once people forget, then you might have a chance to move up."
Some scientists say China's overemphasis on numerical measures of success can be seen in its almost single-minded focus on the Science Citation Index, or SCI. This index is used to assign an "impact factor" score to scientific journals, which ranks their importance in part by counting how many times their articles are cited in other papers.
Getting an article published in a high-ranking journal can lead to career promotions and monetary rewards. Many Chinese universities offer hefty research grants and salary bonuses to faculty members who get published in journals with high impact factors. In June, Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya'an awarded a group of researchers about $2 million in funding after members got a paper published in the academic journal Cell.
"Everything revolves around the SCI," said Chen Li, a professor in the medical school at Fudan University in Shanghai. He and other scientists compared Chinese academia's obsession with this numerical index to the government's fixation on gross domestic product as a measure of economic success.
"Sometimes we joke that to evaluate faculty in China, all you need is a primary school kid who can do addition," Chen said. "Just add up the impact factors of the different journals."
One result has been increasingly elaborate schemes for getting papers into prestigious journals. These include the use of faked peer reviews, a practice that came under strict scrutiny following the retraction of 107 biology papers last spring — the largest such mass retraction by a single journal in history. Many of those authors were clinical doctors, who in China face intense pressure to publish.
They took advantage of the fact that many scholarly journals rely on evaluations by other scientists in the same field in deciding whether to publish a paper. Some journals — including Tumor Biology, which retracted the 107 articles — go so far as to ask the authors themselves to suggest peers to write these reviews, a fact that critics say opened the door to fraud.
In Tumor Biology's case, government investigators found that many of the authors had submitted the names of real researchers, but with fabricated email addresses. This apparently allowed the authors, or more often writers hired by the authors, to pose as academic peers, and write positive reviews that would help get their own papers published.
According to an investigation led by the country's Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese researchers used such methods to manipulate the peer-review process in 101 out of the 107 retracted articles. In many cases, government investigators said authors had gone online to hire people to write professional-sounding reviews.
A recent search revealed a teeming, illicit trade in faked peer reviews. A search for the term "help publishing papers" on Taobao, a popular Chinese e-commerce site, yielded a long list of sellers who offered services ranging from faked peer reviews to entire scientific papers already written and ready to submit. Depending on the service, they charge from a few hundred dollars up to $10,000.
"We have helped professors of all backgrounds," one seller wrote through Taobao's chat function. "Don't worry, we'll keep it a secret."
Fang Shimin, a prominent muckraking blogger, said: "The fraud techniques have become more sophisticated. They're not as easy to uncover."
Overall, experts say, there are signs that the academic environment in China is improving. Plagiarism appears to be in decline thanks to new detection tools, and Chinese-born researchers returning from universities overseas have brought back best practices, helping to raise ethical standards.
But the pressure to produce original, groundbreaking research remains. Many say that appears to have been the case with Han Chunyu, a scientist at Hebei University of Science and Technology who made a big splash last year by claiming that he had found a new way to edit human genes — a technique that could one day make it possible to eliminate hereditary diseases, or allow parents to tailor their unborn children's height or IQ.
The claim, contained in a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, made Han an overnight celebrity. The local government even offered to build a $32 million gene-editing research center at his university, which he would run.
Then, late last year, other scientists began reporting failures replicating Han's results. Facing mounting pressure, he and his co-authors finally retracted the paper, though they have since vowed to clear their names.
"When it comes to research culture and academic integrity, it all depends on self-discipline," said Zhang Yuehong, editor of the Journal of Zhejiang University, who has studied the problem of plagiarism in research articles. "We need to work harder to develop a culture of integrity."