Academic fraud in China is getting out of hand

In a few short years, China has metamorphosed from a middling contributor to scientific knowledge into one of the most prolific research entities on the planet. But the country's meteoric ascent to scientific prominence – widely attributed to a flawed incentive system – has given unintentional rise to a lucrative industry of academic fakery.

The Economist this weekend gave an update on the state of scientific research in China. The upshot? Science is booming, but so is its culture of fraudulent research:

As China tries to take its seat at the top table of global academia, the criminal underworld has seized on a feature in its research system: the fact that research grants and promotions are awarded on the basis of the number of articles published, not on the quality of the original research. This has fostered an industry of plagiarism, invented research and fake journals that Wuhan University estimated in 2009 was worth $150m, a fivefold increase on just two years earlier.

While China's incentive system may ultimately prove self-impeding, it's difficult to dismiss it outright; the country's purely quantitative approach has, perhaps unsurprisingly, resulted in some very impressive numbers:

Mainland Chinese researchers have published a steadily increasing share of scientific papers in journals included in the prestigious Science Citation Index (SCI—maintained by Thomson Reuters, a publisher). The number grew from a negligible share in 2001 to 9.5% in 2011, second in the world to America, according to a report published by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China. From 2002 to 2012, more than 1m Chinese papers were published in SCI journals; they ranked sixth for the number of times cited by others. Nature, a science journal, reported that in 2012 the number of papers from China in the journal’s 18 affiliated research publications rose by 35% from 2011. The journal said this “adds to the growing body of evidence that China is fast becoming a global leader in scientific publishing and scientific research”.

And yet, for several years now, the biggest question surrounding China's success has gone largely unchanged: Just how much of a threat does the country's flourishing fraud-culture pose to its newfound scientific ascendancy?

In 2010, however, Nature had also noted rising concerns about fraud in Chinese research, reporting that in one Chinese government survey, a third of more than 6,000 scientific researchers at six leading institutions admitted to plagiarism, falsification or fabrication. [Ed. Note: Compare that number to the results of a survey of 32,000 scientists, conducted by the China Association for Science and Technology, which found more than 55 percent of researchers polled knew someone guilty of academic fraud.] The details of the survey have not been publicly released, making it difficult to compare the results fairly with Western surveys, which have also found that one-third of scientists admit to dishonesty under the broadest definition, but that a far smaller percentage (2% on average) admit to having fabricated or falsified research results.

Survey results like this are troubling, because they suggest that academic fakery in China has reached a sort of critical mass in the country's research community that winds up holding honesty hostage; when fraud becomes the norm, it prevents fraudsters from being outed – or, if they are outed, from being duly reprimanded for their transgressions. Fang Shimin, who exposes academic fraud in China on his Web site, New Threads, characterized the situation to The New York Times back in 2010:

When plagiarism is exposed, colleagues and school leaders often close ranks around the accused. Mr. Fang said this was partly because preserving relationships trumped protecting the reputation of the institution. But the other reason, he said, is more sobering: Few academics are clean enough to point a finger at others.

Remember psychologist Diederick Stapel's highly publicized, career-obliterating fall from grace? According to Zeng Guoping, director of Beijing's Institute of Science Technology and Society, which helped orchestrate the aforementioned survey of 6,000 Chinese academics, that's just not how it goes down in China:

He cited the case of Chen Jin, a computer scientist who was once celebrated for having invented a sophisticated microprocessor but who, it turned out, had taken a chip made by Motorola, scratched out its name, and claimed it as his own. After Mr. Chen was showered with government largess and accolades, the exposure in 2006 was an embarrassment for the scientific establishment that backed him.

Chen lost his university post, but he was never prosecuted. And that, says Zeng Guoping, who helped run the aforementioned Nature survey of 6,000 Chinese academics, is the real problem:

“When people see the accused still driving their flashy cars, it sends the wrong message,” he said.

Additional Reading

Top image via Shutterstock