China cracks down after investigation finds massive peer-review fraud
By Dennis Normile
A massive peer-review fraud has triggered a tough response from the Chinese government. Officials last week announced that more than 400 researchers listed as authors on some 100 now-retracted papers will face disciplinary action because their misconduct has seriously damaged China’s scientific reputation.
Some institutions have barred the scientists linked to the fraud from pursuing their research—at least temporarily. And they have imposed other penalties, including canceling promotions, honors, and grants. Government ministries have also announced new “zero tolerance” policies aimed at stamping out research fraud. "We should eradicate the problem from its roots," said He Defang, director of the Ministry of Science and Technology’s (MOST’s) regulatory division in Beijing.
Although China has previously cracked down on scientific misconduct—a chronic problem—these penalties "are the harshest ever," says Chen Bikun, an information scientist at the Nanjing University of Science and Technology in China who tracks trends in scientific publishing.
MOST’s 27 July announcement marked the culmination of an investigation into the mass retraction this past April of 107 papers by Chinese authors that appeared in a single journal, Tumor Biology. The papers, published between 2012 and 2016, were pulled after editors found "strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised," Editor-in-Chief Torgny Stigbrand, of Umeå University in Sweden, wrote on 20 April on the website of the publisher Springer. (Springer, an arm of Springer Nature, published Tumor Biology until December 2016; the journal is now operated by SAGE Publications.)
Investigators say the authors engaged in an all-too-common scam. Tumor Biology allowed submitting authors to nominate reviewers. The Chinese authors suggested “experts” and provided email addresses that routed messages from the journal back to the researchers themselves, or to accomplices—sometimes third-party firms hired by the authors—who wrote glowing reviews that helped get the papers accepted.
The MOST investigation focused on 101 papers for which there was evidence of faked peer review, according to a summary of a press conference posted on the agency’s website. Investigators concluded that for 95 of the papers third party agencies had provided phony experts or false reviews. In six cases, one or more of the authors perpetrated the fraud themselves.
Overall, 80 of the papers reported actual research results, investigators found. But nine were fraudulent, and 12 of the papers had been purchased outright from third parties by the supposed authors. The remaining six papers have various other problems or are still under investigation.
Investigators linked 521 academics and physicians to the 107 papers. Just 11 were cleared of misconduct. Twenty-four have been put on a watch list because of insufficient evidence. Of the rest, 102 were deemed to carry primary responsibility for fraud, and 70 carried secondary responsibility. An additional 314 were judged to have not participated in the scam, but bear some responsibility for allowing themselves to appear as co-authors without making sure their colleagues were behaving appropriately.
In a sign of how seriously government officials took the case, an array of major agencies—including the Ministry of Education and the China Association for Science and Technology—joined MOST’s investigation. The punishments are being decided by institutions on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with Communist Party regulations. The agencies are also calling on institutions to formulate more stringent rules for identifying and handling fraud.
The inquiry was “much more thorough and open than” in previous cases, says Yu Yao, a geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. And the severe punishments have grabbed the attention of researchers, who have been discussing them on social media, Chen says. Many Chinese scientists are “deeply shocked,” he says, and have vowed to be “more conscientious and careful” in collaborating with other authors.
The call to discipline co-authors judged to have been unknowingly caught in deception, however, is a bit controversial. "If an author provides reliable data for the paper and is not involved in fraud, the author should be warned, but not be punished," Yu says.
The journal and its sponsoring society should also take some of the blame, Chen believes. He and others note that Tumor Biology, which is owned by the International Society of Oncology and BioMarkers, has a history of problems. In 2016 it retracted 25 papers all at once for similar peer-review problems. The journal now has the dubious distinction of having retracted "the most papers of any other journal," according to Retraction Watch. An investigation by ScienceInsider found that several scientists listed on its editorial board had no relationship with the journal and one had even passed away several years ago. The journal “should also improve their examination system to prevent [abuse by] unscrupulous researchers," Chen says.
SAGE took over responsibility for publishing the journal "with the agreement that there would be a complete overhaul of the editorial structure and peer review practices of the journal, specifically the use of preferred reviewers," a SAGE spokesperson wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.
In general, however, the government’s response to the massive fraud is drawing support. Zhu Yong-Guan, a biogeochemist at the Institute of Urban Environment in Xiamen, China, says the episode “reminds us that 'zero tolerance' toward academic dishonesty needs further strengthening, and the actions by the Chinese government are very timely."
*Update, 1 August, 10:15 a.m.: Statement from SAGE Publications added.
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About 10 years ago, in my lab rat days, I moved to a large structural biology lab. As a cell biologist I had a different skillset to my new colleagues, and my new boss asked to me tackle a problem that had been eluding the rest of the lab. This was to replicate the result of an experiment performed by our cell-biological collaborators across the road.
I approached the challenge with the enthusiasm of a new starter. I was soon able to show results proving I had the system up and running, with positive and negative controls all doing the right thing.
But trying it for real, I just as quickly got stuck. I repeated the experiment countless times over the coming months, varying this and that parameter and trying different cell lines and farting around with different sequences, and never once managed to achieve the intended result.
As I thought and learned more about the experimental system we were using and the biological problem we were tackling, I started to wonder how on earth our friends across the campus could ever have expected to have got they result they had – and had published. The more I understood the system, the less I understood their result.
Finally, with Christmas approaching, our two labs had a joint meeting to share results and generally plan the next stage of our collaboration. By then I had some other promising lines of enquiry, but that original result still niggled – and eluded – me.
I showed a few gels at this meeting, sharing my frustration, and it was then that one of their senior postdocs said, “Oh yes, we had to do it about fourteen times before we got the result we wanted.”
I wasn’t entirely happy with that particular discovery. But frustrating as it was, at the time I didn’t think in terms of scientific misconduct. We couldn’t publish a paper saying “guys, this isn’t right”, and we certainly didn’t have the time, energy or indeed inclination to force a retraction. It was a minor result in a fairly small field, and there were other geese to cook. But that didn’t stop me being angry at the resources and time I’d wasted on a project that went nowhere ... for all the wrong reasons.
I was rather forcibly reminded of this episode a couple of weeks ago. We hired somebody to join our writing team, somebody like me, who had been a lab rat and then jumped ship. Assigned to mentor the new hire, I invited them for an informal chat so that I could understand them better.
Why do people persist in beliefs that are wrong – and even harmful? | Richard P Grant
“Why did you leave bench science?” might have been an obvious question, but I asked it anyway. The answer seemed plausible: this person had got to the stage where they were spending so much time writing grants and papers that they had no time to do bench work, and so decided to make a clean break. Apparently they wrote all the lab’s papers and grant proposals, being good at it, so a career in medical communications seemed like a natural step.
But soon after I reviewed their first piece of writing, the new hire resigned. Apparently their partner was relocating overseas, and so they were going along too. A couple of days later, halfway through their notice period, they simply didn’t turn up to the office. And that was that.
The following week we discovered that this person had previously worked for a short time at another agency in London. And had left there in similarly mysterious circumstances.
It was then we found their name in the newspapers, on Retraction Watch, and in a few other places.
According to the reports, this person had falsified data, and published it, on a number of occasions over several years – both as postdoc and as principal investigator. An inquiry at their home university had upheld allegations of misconduct, and they had been fired from their post.
And this brings me back to where we came in, to the effect scientific malpractice has on other people. The scientific fraudster who worked briefly for us had lied and cheated their way to a prestigious position, winning grants and awards on the back of made-up research. In doing so they took resources that could have been used by someone else, someone who wasn’t a liar and a cheat.
Through winning research funds and positions – deceitfully – they denied an incredible opportunity to somebody who might have actually deserved it; they prevented some other young, honest and hard-working scientist from fulfilling their potential.
There is a spectrum of wrongdoing in science, from selecting the one result out of many that makes sense to you, up to deliberately faking figures in papers. And until there is a change in culture such that people are encouraged to say, “Guys, this isn’t right” – such as I might have been a decade ago – there will continue to be high-profile cases of seriously damaging scientific fraud.
That’s not good for science, and it’s certainly not good for ordinary scientists.