Springer retracted 107 papers from Tumor Biology in April.

Emily Petersen

China cracks down after investigation finds massive peer-review fraud

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.