Continuing allegations of research misconduct require system reform

By Richard de Grijs
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 4, 2017
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Research practices in China recently hit the international headlines again. Springer, the publishing behemoth jointly based in Germany and the U.S., retracted more than a hundred scientific articles authored by Chinese scientists from its journals.

Apparently, "fake" peer reviews were behind the latest retractions: Scrutiny of research articles undertaken by third parties were not conducted as independently or impartially as appearances may have suggested.

This kind of news, yet again, is really disheartening to the majority of Chinese scientists who rigorously comply with the requirement for ethical research, and it exasperates me. Admittedly, Springer pointed out that research fraud is a global problem; however, China is often singled out.

In response, Shang Yong, Executive Vice Chairman of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), pledged zero tolerance of academic fraud -- yet again. "China will resolutely contain the breeding and spread of academic fraud and deal with such misconduct seriously," he told Xinhua News Agency on May 25.

Last December, CAST implemented a regulatory framework to facilitate suppressing any misconduct. However, anecdotal evidence suggests it remains rampant in some sections of Chinese science, as admitted by researchers themselves.

The results of a new survey of Chinese biomedical researchers published in April 2017 in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics suggests some 40 percent of researchers in the country may have had dealings with research misconduct in one way or another.

Whether this is an accurate figure, the conclusion that Chinese academics feel research misconduct remains a major problem is unmistakable. Rather than focusing on the numbers, this calls for a renewed focus on the bigger issues, the underlying reasons for unethical behavior.

Shang Yong concurred, stating that "lessons should be drawn from scientific fraud and efforts are needed to reform the evaluation system for scientists, scientific projects and institutions for scientific research."

The one-size-fits-all evaluation system routinely applied for assessment of the country's researchers is long overdue for major reform. CAST is now taking the lead in addressing this at ministerial level -- good news for the majority of honest researchers.

Indeed, almost three-quarters of the respondents to the biomedical survey were of the opinion that the assessment system needs to change, with only 13 percent supporting further regulatory measures.

Among the most common types of misconduct reported were plagiarism -- reusing someone else's words or ideas without proper attribution -- and authorship issues. This could take the form of adding "famous" names to papers without those authors' consent, in the hope of securing an easier time through the peer-review process, often known as "gift authorship."

Education policy researcher Shuangye Chen of East China Normal University in Shanghai, quoted in a recent article about this problem on the whistle-blowing website, referred to the complicated Chinese research ecosystem: "It's more complicated in the Chinese context. […] They try to do it as a kind of collective. They know that someone who is [up for promotion] needs this kind of paper or authorship. They would gift this kind of authorship, not as an individual act, but to benefit the whole group or the whole lab."

The underlying problem here is that research output is often exclusively based on the numbers of publications scientists have produced, without any consideration of quality. Most of the time, only publications achieved as "first author" count toward promotion, tenure, or award decisions, which has an additional negative side-effect in that it hinders research collaboration.

Collaboration is the bread and butter of the research enterprise; they are almost always more than the sum of their parts, so a system that actively discourages research collaboration raises eyebrows internationally.

The Chinese research evaluation system has long relied on external validation, particularly by counting articles published in internationally peer-reviewed journals. That may have been an appropriate approach 40 or 50 years ago, when the country's nascent research infrastructure and ecosystem could not rely on many experienced senior researchers.

However, today, thousands of highly qualified researchers return to Chinese universities and research institutes from abroad every year, and, in many disciplines, the domestic research community is on a par with their international counterparts.

There is no good reason to stick to counting numbers in evaluating research. China's domestic institutions are fully capable of embracing an approach that values quality rather than quantity.

Perhaps it's just a matter of political will to reform the system to make it more competitive and reduce the pressure that pushes some of our colleagues to commit academic fraud. Let's hope that the CAST initiative will lead to positive change, including in terms of international perceptions.

Richard de Grijs is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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