Cao Xuetao

VCG/Getty Images

Top Chinese researcher faces questions about image manipulation

One of China’s most prominent scientists is facing a barrage of questions about images in dozens of papers produced by laboratories he leads. The Chinese Academy of Engineering has launched an investigation of the publications, by immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, and the case is getting extensive attention in both traditional and social media.

Cao has defended the scientific validity of the papers, says he is cooperating with the review, and has promised to work with journals to correct any errors. “I most sincerely apologize for any oversight on my part,” he wrote 17 November on PubPeer, the publications review website where researchers first raised questions about the papers. “I remain confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications.”

The episode highlights long-standing concerns about China’s scientific enterprise, observers say, including whether star scientists can effectively oversee the far-flung research empires they often lead, and whether officials are making progress in stamping out chronic research misconduct.

Cao’s work came under scrutiny after microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, a consultant in San Francisco, California, who searches for doctored images in papers, noted on PubPeer that several images in a 2009 paper in The Journal of Immunology on the suppression of T cell proliferation “look unexpectedly similar.” Parts of several images of flow cytometry events “appear to have been swapped differentially between panels,” she wrote on 14 November. “Could the authors please explain what happened here?”

Other PubPeer contributors have been examining that image and others among Cao’s more than 300 papers. Bik reported in a recent tweet that they have flagged more than 60 of Cao’s papers. But, “I am not accusing anyone of misconduct,” Bik tweeted on 18 November. “Please keep in mind that many of these duplications might just be honest errors.”

Even if honest errors are involved, numerous people identifying themselves as Chinese scientists tweeted support for Bik’s efforts. 

On 18 November, China’s engineering academy told local media that it would investigate, but provided no details.

The case has renewed discussion in China about the power wielded by elite scientists such as Cao, who simultaneously leads one of the nation’s top universities—ranked 12th in the latest Times Higher Education list—and directs three additional laboratories or institutes in different cities. They are the National Key Laboratory of Medical Immunology in Shanghai, the Center for Immunotherapy at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, and the Institute of Immunology at Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou, according to various sources.

In addition to being a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Cao is a foreign member of scientific or medical academies in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He also heads four Chinese academic societies, though these positions are honorific and take up little time, says Cao Cong, a science policy expert at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China. (He is not related to Cao Xuetao.)

Running Nankai University, however, likely “demands 100% of [Cao Xuetao’s] efforts,” says Cao Cong, preventing him “from devoting significant time to running the two labs in Shanghai and Beijing.” That means Cao Xuetao must rely on large teams of graduate students and postdocs to do the actual research, says Huang Futao, a higher education scholar at Hiroshima University in Japan. But such high-flying scientists often “do not have sufficient time or energy to supervise” those researchers, he notes.

This year, at least one-quarter of the retracted papers recorded by the website Retraction Watch were by Chinese authors, says Xiaotian Chen, a library and information scientist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. The country has launched several initiatives to improve the record. For example, in August 2017, officials announced that more than 400 authors on some 100 retracted papers would face disciplinary actions ranging from bans on research to cancelation of promotions, honors, and grants.

Cao Xuetao, ironically, has been involved in efforts to improve research integrity in China. On 13 November, he gave a speech to some 6000 people in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that touched on research “integrity, ethics, and morality.” The talk was live-streamed to universities and 800,000 students watched, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.

“But it is hard to change the culture,” Chen says. “The cost of research misconduct is either very low or does not exist in China. Academic misconduct in the U.S. and Europe usually leads to resignation or dismissal, but that practice is not very common in China.”

How the authorities handle the Cao Xuetao review will be a test case, says Cao Cong. Over the past 2 years, key government, Communist Party, and scientific bodies have issued guidelines for research integrity and set penalties for misconduct. If Cao Xuetao is found guilty of violating those rules but no action is taken, he says, “it means that various policies to maintain the integrity of scientific research are empty talk.”

With reporting by Bian Huihui.