Incidences of scientific misconduct seem to be on the rise, at least if we may believe reporting by the mainstream news media and whistle-blowing sites like RetractionWatch.com. Think of plagiarism, image manipulation, lack of ethical approval, statistical faux pas, manipulation of peer review, ghost authorship, and similar offences. High-profile recent cases include that which led to the dismissal of the Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini from the prestigious Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Sweden just a few months ago, but also instances of plagiarism highlighted in the doctoral theses of government ministers and even national leaders in a growing number of countries around the world.
Most remedial measures to prevent future misconduct cases are implemented after the fact. Few systems have been set up to proactively attempt to avoid behavior that might lead to misconduct cases developing. It is therefore refreshing to realize that CAST, the China Association for Science and Technology, has proactively implemented a regulatory framework to facilitate just this. Its cardinal guidelines boil down to the need for researchers to take responsibility for their own actions rather than relying on a third party to write, edit, or submit their articles for publication, and to act ethically in terms of assigning authorship credit and managing the peer-review process.
The stakes for the career progression of individual academics are huge, since the "publish or perish" mantra is as strong as ever in Chinese academia. Just last week, the National Natural Science Foundation of China demonstrated unequivocally that it takes instances of misconduct very seriously indeed: the NSFC disclosed information about 117 cases of scientific misconduct, reaffirming its zero-tolerance approach to treating individuals caught red-handed.
This is a very welcome development for the vast majority of hard-working Chinese scientists who perform their research with the greatest integrity. Internationally, when the media or other stakeholders discuss examples of scientific misconduct, it has almost become the default approach to point the accusing finger to Chinese scientists. This is a lazy choice. Chinese science has come a very long way in recent decades. Many academics and researchers at the key institutions nationally, and increasing numbers at their provincial counterparts, are foreign-educated, fully up to speed with international ethical standards, and keen to make an impact in the world of science. A record blemished by allegations of misconduct would signify the end of one's career, for all practical purposes. This implies, in turn, that the need to conduct one's research with the greatest integrity is indeed the big red flag at the forefront of most scientists' minds.
The regulatory framework in China goes well beyond that imposed by either the CAST or the NSFC. Research involving human subjects or animals must pass through rigorous review by institutional ethical review boards, just like anywhere else at leading scientific institutions. After all, the absence of review board approval precludes publication of one's results in the most prestigious journals that can make or break a career. Pointing one's finger to cases of misconduct in China by default is therefore an oversimplification of a complex international problem. More importantly, such allegations have real consequences for individual scientists in the country: many Chinese scientists say that they feel that their work is placed under a magnifying glass to a much greater extent than that of their collaborators and competitors in the traditional scientific powerhouses. Chinese researchers often feel that their work is tarnished with a stamp of "guilty until proven innocent" even before it has been carefully reviewed. This is disheartening, to say the least, and generally unwarranted.
Lazy reporting like this thus has real consequences for actual people. NSFC's zero-tolerance attitude will go some way to alleviating the problem, but we need a more structural approach to change ingrained ideas in the minds of our accusers. From my perspective, I strongly advocate for increasing international collaboration among research partners, building people-to-people networks to achieve this goal -- one collaboration at a time. A sustained effort at breaking into the well-established old boys' networks of mostly Western senior scientists dominating the international research landscape is long overdue. With increasing numbers of talented scientists returning from overseas to take up leadership roles at domestic institutions, I am optimistic that change is coming --but don't expect miracles to occur overnight.
Richard de Grijs is a Dutch professor of astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (Peking University) in Beijing. He is also actively involved in the world of international scientific publishing through his roles as Deputy Editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the pre-eminent journal in his field, and as member of the Board of Directors of ORCID, the Open Researcher and Contributor ID.
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