How to tackle academic misconduct among China’s top scientists

Preventing unethical behaviour requires regulatory and institutional reforms, as well as lead researchers remaining close to work done in their name, says Futao Huang

January 12, 2020
China police
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Since the implementation of China’s national strategy to build world-class universities in 1998, the country has rapidly increased its output of scientific papers. According to the US National Science Foundation’s 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report, China published more than 426,000 studies in 2016, accounting for 18.6 per cent of the publications indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database. This means that China has surpassed the US to become the world’s largest producer of research papers.

However, as early as 2002, the number of cases of academic dishonesty among top scientists in China had begun to rise. According to a 2018 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there were 64 cases of academic dishonesty between 2007 and 2017. In 2016, at least 10 scientists were questioned and charged. These incidents occurred at 46 universities and one national research institute. More than 65 per cent of academic misconduct cases took place at leading national universities; and 16 of the universities were included in the Project 985 national excellence initiative and 12 were participants in Project 211.

By academic rank, 38 of the accused academics were professors, and eight were associate professors. Among the more recent incidents of alleged misconduct is that of the immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, who faces questions about image manipulation in dozens of papers produced by laboratories that he leads.

One reason why research from top Chinese scientists is so frequently questioned is because such high-profile individuals are often disengaged and detached from their work, a result of their having too many responsibilities unrelated to their scientific research. Both central government and local authorities tend to select famous or top scientists to serve as officials in government departments, aiming to increase the number of officials with high academic degrees and globally recognised reputations.

In China, many top scientists seem willing to take administrative positions in the government sector or in industry and business.

It is not uncommon, for example, for a leading scientist to be a member of the Chinese Academy of Natural Sciences or Engineering, the leader of a high-profile university, and president or member of standing committees of several professional associations at home and abroad, all while maintaining their role as director of a national laboratory.

With such a plethora of commitments, top scientists have to recruit a large number of doctoral students, especially postdoctoral researchers or early career academics, to conduct research under their supervision. However, the directors often lack sufficient time to supervise their charges adequately.

The second reason why academic honesty is often questioned is that China’s national regulations for scholarly integrity were issued only in the early 2000s. And most of the wording is too broad, lacking precise descriptions and making it hard to apply the regulations to specific cases.

In September 2019, the government released national regulations on investigating and addressing academic integrity. It includes more detailed measures for responding to cases of academic dishonesty, but it focuses on how to investigate issues of scientific integrity and what decisions or penalties should be made afterwards. The measures range from issuing warnings to researchers who have committed fraud to cancelling academic or honorary titles and cutting off research funding. If the researchers are party members, they are punished according to regulations specifically designated for party members.

The third reason is that universities typically try to avoid undertaking serious investigations into or imposing penalties on their academics, especially top scientists. Cases of research misconduct would harm these universities’ reputations and could cost them funding from national governments or local authorities. For example, it took almost two years for news of Han Chunyu’s falsification of data in a paper for Nature to be made public.

Tackling academic dishonesty among China’s top scientists requires regulatory and institutional changes.

First, China needs to establish a more comprehensive and preventive quality control framework, especially at the institutional level. This should include teaching academics, especially early career ones, about scholarly ethics and how to follow best practice and ethical research principles. It should also involve using software to check for and avoid research misconduct.

Second, top scientists should not be encouraged to take positions in government or industry that have nothing to do with their research or academic activities. They should remain in environments where they can concentrate their time and energy on scientific research.

Third, an independent or a third-party investigating committee should be set up to scrutinise claims of academic dishonesty. Such panels should be able to impose more severe penalties than are currently in place.

Academic research and academic matters at the university level should be based on the integration of institutional autonomy and intellectual freedom, and adhere to national regulations. They should not be influenced by political or commercial purposes, and their goals should not be simply to win more research funding or to increase the number of publications in indexed journals. The pursuit of truth and human welfare should be the main motivations for investigating academic integrity.

Finally, it is important for both government and institutional leaders to know that academic integrity largely comes through hiring academics and scientists who will have close contact with their research rather than those with multiple roles or too many administrative positions to be responsible institutional leaders or principal investigators.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University and co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme.

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