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China pursues fraudsters in science publishing
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China pursues fraudsters in science publishing

China’s main basic research agency is cracking down on scientists who used fake peer reviews to publish papers, demanding that serious offenders return research funding. The move accompanies an announcement by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) in Beijing, first reported by state media on 12 November, that it had investigated dozens of scientists involved in peer-review scams. The probe’s findings highlighted the role of China’s many unscrupulous paper brokers, which peddle ghostwritten or fraudulent papers.

“If it wasn't obvious before, it is now difficult to deny China's research community has serious underlying ethical issues,” says Benjamin Shaw, China director for the English-language editing company Edanz in Beijing. Others caution that the sanctions on discredited authors are not severe enough to deter academic dishonesty. But the coordinated response by funding agencies and CAST, which links China’s science and technology community with the government, suggests China is taking the publishing abuses seriously.

Since 2012 scores of authors, many of them Chinese, have been snagged in a peer-review scandal involving papers published in international journals. Journals discovered that authors or their brokers had suggested their own reviewers, provided email addresses to accounts controlled by the perpetrators, and then reviewed their own work. The findings, first reported by the blog Retraction Watch, prompted major publishers to retract scores of papers. In March, the London-based BioMed Central (BMC) began retracting 43 papers, and on 18 August Springer, which owns BioMed Central, said that it would retract 64 papers. Elsevier and SAGE have also retracted papers en masse.

In some cases the publishers say that authors weren’t solely to blame. “Some researchers may have innocently become implicated in attempts to manipulate the peer review process by disreputable services,” Elizabeth Moylan, senior editor for research integrity at BMC, wrote on the publisher’s blog last March after an internal investigation. Four months later, Diagnostic Pathology: Open Access, a BMC journal, took the unusual step of updating a retraction notice, noting that the authors’ institute in Shanghai, China, had found that the researchers “intended to purchase language editing services for their manuscript only and did not participate in influencing the peer review process.” 

The CAST investigation underscores the role of paper brokers, who profit from China’s publish-or-perish mentality. According to People’s Daily, the association contacted each of the 31 Chinese authors who had papers retracted by BMC. (BMC provided CAST with information when asked but did not collaborate on the investigation, says BMC spokesperson Shane Canning.) Fully 29 authors admitted to using a broker, with many shelling out fees ranging from $600 to more than $5500.

The CAST investigation identified five companies that helped authors of the retracted papers secure fraudulent peer reviews, People’s Daily noted. (In 2013, before the peer-review scandal came to light, Science published an investigation into China’s paper brokers, uncovering schemes in which scientists could purchase authorship of accepted papers or have papers ghostwritten. One broker singled out by Science was also targeted by the CAST investigation.)

The Chinese government is taking steps to prevent fraud. Earlier this month, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) announced that it had investigated authors of 22 retracted papers whom it had supported, revoking funding in egregious cases. If a retracted paper was submitted as the basis for a grant application, “the employer of the offending researcher has to return all of the funding for the grant, regardless of how much of the money has been spent,” NSFC President Yang Wei told Science. For fraud committed after grant approval, the foundation is revoking all money due after a paper's submission. 

Because many of the retracted papers were in medical science, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission is also reacting to the scandals. In September, it released new regulations requiring institutions to fully investigate cases of scientific misconduct and forbidding researchers from signing their names to papers they did not help research or write. 

Companies that provide legitimate English-language editing services are attempting to distance themselves from less-principled brethren. Last month, six editing companies formed the Alliance for Scientific Editing in China and adopted industry standards, such as requiring members to publish ethics policies and forbidding them from manipulating the peer review process.

Such measures may not be sufficient, says Lin Songqing, an editor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan. Until more institutions begin firing scientists who commit fraud, he says, “Paper trading will still exist for a long time.” Science administrators and officials themselves feel pressure to rack up publications, he adds—which gives them “incentive to hide the truth” about publishing abuses. Zhang Yuehong, editor of the Journal of Zhejiang University-SCIENCE in Hangzhou, says more journals should do their own policing, adopting tools like Open Researcher and Contributor ID, which allows editors and readers to easily examine authors’ academic backgrounds.

Fighting misconduct is a long-term struggle, Yang warns. “Academic fraud in different varieties comes and goes like tidal waves,” he says. “One has to watch for new forms of fraud constantly.”