Big trouble in little China: Two looks at what warps scientific publishing there

economistThe press corps has turned its attention to scientific publishing in China this week.

Here’s Naomi Ching’s lede — that’s how we spell it in journalism — from Nautilus:

You may have heard that Chinese researchers are not very well compensated, compared to their Western counterparts. What you might not know is that they can increase their income by a factor of 10 with a single publication. The better the journal they publish in, as judged by the average number of times that its papers are cited, the more money they make. According to an anonymous source specializing in science evaluation in China, some research institutions follow a simple formula for determining cash rewards: 10,000 yuan, multiplied by one plus the journal impact factor (the impact factor reflects average citation levels). For example, publication in The Lancet, whose impact factor was 39.06 in 2012, would fetch 400,600 yuan (about $65,000). By comparison, the average yearly income of Chinese scientific researchers was 39,850 yuan in 2007, according to a survey by the China Association for Science and Technology.

Hmm, that sort of incentive wouldn’t create any problems, would it? Read the rest of Ching’s piece for more.

And here’s Gady Epstein’s top, from The Economist:

DISGUISED as employees of a gas company, a team of policemen burst into a flat in Beijing on September 1st. Two suspects inside panicked and tossed a plastic bag full of money out of a 15th-floor window. Red hundred-yuan notes worth as much as $50,000 fluttered to the pavement below.

Money raining down on pedestrians was not as bizarre, however, as the racket behind it. China is known for its pirated DVDs and fake designer gear, but these criminals were producing something more intellectual: fake scholarly articles which they sold to academics, and counterfeit versions of existing medical journals in which they sold publication slots.

Intrigue! Someone call Jeffrey Beall. And read the rest of Epstein’s piece.

The billion-person question is just how much scientific fraud there is in China, and that’s a hard one to answer. Epstein quotes a 2010 Nature story “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,” noting that such figures more or less match what Western scientists say in surveys.

And how many retractions are there in China every year? Epstein cites a paper in PNAS that Retraction Watch readers may recall:

…there were more retractions due to plagiarism from China and India together than from America (which produced the most papers by far, and so the most cheating overall). The study also found that papers from China led the world in retractions due to duplication—the same papers being published in multiple journals. On retractions due to fraud, China ranked fourth, behind America, Germany and Japan.

Those numbers are difficult to interpret, of course, without taking into account how many papers are published in each country. Still, they give some sense of what might be going on.

25 thoughts on “Big trouble in little China: Two looks at what warps scientific publishing there”

  1. I don’t have to look too far about the high(ish) level of academic ‘fraud’ (if it has to be described as fraud) in China. I just look at my own personal working experience as an editor in Hong Kong. (So clearly I’m whistleblowing on myself here a bit.)

    As a much more Westernised place than China, I have regularly subbed the hell out of master- and doctoral-level theses by Hong Kong academics. I have actually (and successfully) ghostwritten three theses (two for China, one for Hong Kong) in that past editorial life. If the heavy-as-rewriting type of editing happens in Hong Kong, the the might-as-well-lift-it attitude is going to much higher in China.

    (Of course, in my own defence, I’ve always tried to push the authors to explain themselves through the use of trenchant editorial questions and really pressing them to write in their own words even in horrible English that I could clean up later. It’s not always possible, I should add.)

    One of the prime reasons that many China theses and papers GET SUSSED OUT is that the mainland Chinese mentality has a different conception of plagiarism. I have discovered that many mainland Chinese seem to think that lifting something from somewhere and rewording it makes it okay to sidestep plagiarism. The whole history of literature in China is replete with such ‘amended’ works, which is why authors of many historic Chinese works cannot be definitively identified. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is perhaps the classic example of the exception.

    Another reason not often mentioned is that plagiaristic practices in China, India, etc, are also a matter of economics. Income even for the educated (or perhaps especially for the educated) is low. Many of these countries are manufacturing-oriented countries, so there’s not a great deal of ‘intellectual’ work available in the general scheme of things in actual fact. There is almighty pressure to come up with the moolah to pay off the bills, the dowry, the wedding costs, the rent, the education loans (yes, that happens in this part of the world too), etc. Willingness to pay is matched by willingness to accept and furnish the goods. Yer pays yer money, yer picks yer goods. The higher the ghostwriting fees, the better the product quality, ergo, the lower the probability of getting found out.

    Of course, things are improving, but your ‘billion-person question’ certain is worth asking.

    1. listner– you said you thoroughly edited or ghostwritten thesis to the point where the writing could not be recognized as the original authors, is that correct? If so, this strikes me as very unethical. How do you rationalize what you are doing?

      1. Yes, exactly how you understand it – subbing beyond recognition.

        Yes, it WAS my past life for a very short while. Yes, it WAS unethical. I don’t have to rationalise it – it’s simply a matter of trying to make a living from being hired as an independent contractor. There’s no real defence on my part – it’s just something that I did and, thankfully, don’t do anymore. I now work in financial printing (for IPOs and that sort of thing) so that’s a different ballgame altogether.

        Like I said in my earlier comment, even while engaged in that practice, I have in my own small way tried to “Do The Decent Thing” with those authors who engaged me. Those ‘jobs’ of mine were for those people’s final-year dissertations or theses internally with their universities, not for external journal publication. I’m not stupid enough to do that kind of thing (for money or otherwise) on peer-reviewed journals because I HAVE worked in that part of publishing before and I know the process can suss out troublemakers. I have been approached to sub papers for journal publication, and have always refused for that reason.

        Some of you may put me in the ‘scumbag’ category for doing this. Let me just highlight my point that this practice DOES GO ON in real life, notwithstanding our respective positions and beliefs on the ethics of it.

        Let me also highlight my point that the hired hand has umpteen different reasons for prostituting himself or herself to do this kind of work. Economics is usually high on the list of reasons. Moreover, hired hands don’t unknowingly engage in this kind of work – if anything, they are highly aware of the ramifications more than most people give them credit for. One slip-up and that line of work 100% goes out the window for life.

        NMH, I appreciate your concerns, really I do. I have the same concerns myself. Frankly, I find that ghostwriting aspect of my professional life highly embarrassing myself (if not already with legal liability right now since commenting here).

        I put myself to the hazard and ask my own question: Which is more unethical, the person hired to do this, or the person who’s doing the hiring?

        Give me some credit for my gumption to whistle-blow on myself.

        1. Credit given – at least from me. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your thoughts about why you did this (i.e. to pay your bills) also gives insight as to why others hired you.

          1. Many thanks, Noah, for your kindness and understanding. As a non-practising lawyer with a (very) initial background in biology and psychology, I am concerned as most people are about ethical adequacy – which is why I’ve commented and revealed some of my past here in the first place.

  2. To thenakedlistener:

    From India, arose Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, earliest school of medicine – Ayurveda, Tamil and Sanskrit (classical languages), which is mother of all European languages……originated from India. India gave the world its first university in 700BC and the Nalanda University where students from all over the world studied 60 (!!!) subjects. World’s most peaceful religions (relevant to the current context!!!) such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism came from India!!!! The value of pi, the game of chess, art of navigation, wireless communication, use of anaesthesia, diamonds, copper, spices and condiments……yer names it….yer haves it…….and the list goes on and on and on!!! Just so you know…..Kung Fu was taught to the Chinese by an Indian Buddhist Monk! The concept of zero was invented by an Indian, without which there will be no binary code and alas!… will never be able to comment on the In-ter-net…..using such brazen words about this “low-income paying, plagiaristic, manufacturing-oriented country”…..!!!

    The man said it himself…:
    “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made” – Albert Einstein

    1. To Mother India:-

      I’m well aware of the Indian and other origins of certain portions of mathematics, medicine, languages, academia, religions, games, etc. I pass no judgment on those things because, what are good, are good. The fact that the various things you mentioned have been brought about from India, etc, doesn’t detract or are at odds with what I’ve stated.

      I stated the facts as I know them or as they’ve appeared before me, no more, no less. The fact of the matter IS that plagiaristic practices do happen – and HAVE HAPPENED in my professional life.

      1. Actually, many of the facts she mentions are at best contested, or at worst untrue. For example, Sanskrit and the European languages likely have a common ancestor, rather than Sanskrit being the ancestor of the European languages (and this should be no surprise – there is no evidence of any significant movement of people from India to Europe in the ancient past. Also, pi was already known to the ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians, well before it ever appeared in any Indian texts. The notion that an Indian monk taught the Chinese “kung fu” is rather questionable, too, since there are references to Chinese martial arts that date much, much longer back. Rather, “Mother India” refers to the Shaolin style of “kung fu”, and the origin of the myth that links its origin to an Indian monk has been strongly doubted due to several historical inaccuracies in the foreword that makes this link.

      2. Just gave you some examples of the “intellectual” work from this country. My point is about unsavoury comments about any country as a whole, including……motherland and non-motherlands. Just because you had to face such plagiaristic practices in your professional life doesn’t mean that all the people in the entire country are producing only such work. For a few who plagiarise and take the easy route (who need to be dealt with severely), there are many who are working really, really hard to produce original work.

      3. It is always good bringing professionals back to good practices, and actually I think this makes them one step tougher than common people. Please, since you know the methods and contacts and etc about thesis-ghostwriting, help fighting off the scheme and the system that feeds it. It is so much easier for an insider to expose guts. There is so much good you can do now.

        1. I know, and I get your point. I try my best in my own small way to do the decent thing. Alas, principles can become somewhat flexible in the face of many different kinds of personal and financial obligations. I would love to say more about the whys and wherefores of ghostwriting … alas, the prospect of legal liability is pretty fearsome too for the ghostwriter. Those who use ghostwriters really do have a grip on them…

    2. Thumbs up for keeping up some kind of a balance.

      I have worked with many Indian scientists. I have cited many Chinese ones. The greatest living statistician is from India, like many brilliant minds are and have been. The point is that I would be very hesitant to draw any cultural conclusions, no matter how much anecdotes are put on the table.

      I think we need actual formal empirical research to assert the money-fraud relationship. In contrast to the vague cultural explanations, this is an entirely plausible, testable, hypothesis. This is also the reason why we see more malpractice in science compared to the scholarly fields. Or do we? Adam and Ivan are doing a great job, but we need to put also all this information systematically into a database.

      Nonetheless, publicity from the mainstream media is always laudable.

    1. I have for a long time been advocating that the Impact Factor has been used inappropriately by the Chinese (and Indians and Iranians, among others) to improve funds, salaries and positions, but my ideas were often critiqued unfairly and ridiculed. Although I can understand the rewards basis for this system where scientists are stimulated to publish in higher and higher IF journals in return for monetary incentives, it leaves the door open for abuse. I wonder what does Thomson Reuters think about this? The four following papers may provide your with more fundamental issues such as ethics and the interpretation of authorship in China which can differ considerably from Western ideologies and definitions as indicated by Western publishers and “ethics” organizations:
      Perhaps the title should be edited to read Little Macau rather than Little China.

      1. Thank you for those links. That thing called Impact Factor is even more (umm, shall we say) ‘valuable’ in my own erstwhile area (Law). This is because caselaw reporting/analysis is part and parcel of daily legal practice anyway, so any kind of writing/research beyond caselaw reporting is (for want of a better word) rather ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unusual.’ In a sense, Law is arguably a direct opposite of Science, insofar as journal publication is concerned. (That’s also an oversimplication, but all things being equal, it’s a good enough bird’s eyeview of the situation.) I’m sorry to hear that others have taken your ideas in an unhappy way because I get a sense from your words that you might be on to something.

        1. Thenakedlistener, a curious feedback which made me think two things: are there no law journals published in Chinese and would Chinese authors who publish in legal journals be subject to a different rewards or stimulus system? i.e., are you suggesting that Chinese who publish in legal journals do not make money from publishing there (hence bucking the trend of Chinese scientists)? I do not know the field of legal journals, but surely there must be some with impact factors (considering the de facto definition of the IF, which is the citation basis of a journal). Maybe Naomi Ching could be a valuable guide here.

          1. You have a very quick and good overview of the situation in Chinese-language legal journal publishing. This is a very hard area to explain. I’ll try an overview instead, but bear in mind it’s oversimplified.

            One, it’s not that there are no Chinese-language law journals, but the ones with some reasonable degree of Impact Factor are mostly English-language ones.

            Two, those law journals that do have recognisable IF or publishing history (both in Chinese and in English) also tends to be about Common Law jurisdictions rather than for Civil Law jurisdictions. That’s because there’s not a whole lot to write about in civil law – most things tend to be statutorised and civil-law jurisdictions don’t principally operate on caselaw.

            Three, since because of One and Two above, the situation has come to that Chinese authors who write about law (even about civil-law stuff) would tend to write for common-law publications – as a kind of ‘bridging work’ to interface the two systems. Because of that, you are right that the authors would have to operate on a different reward/incentive system/routine/understanding.

            Four, and jumping ahead a bit here, legal authors don’t make (much) money from publishing in journals because much of that impact tends to be diluted by the regular caselaw reporting anyway.

            I no longer have expertise (even to a small degree) in this area since I don’t practise law anymore. But I’m happy that I’ve helped you highlight your important insights.

  3. Here is a formal report (in chinese) on the investigation of a plagarisim accusation involving an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences from Fudan University, a key university of China. The investigation committee agreed that that person used as many as 25 figures from a booked titledTympanoplasty and Stapedectomy: A Manual of Technology (publsihed in Europe) in one of his books without permision. But the committee does not think this is plagarisim. This case may indicate how bad the situation is in China.

    1. Thank you, LX Zhang. That example in a way also goes to show that my previous statements re different conception of plagiarism aren’t entirely without foundation (although not quite with foundation either).

  4. Bravo to Mother India for making the point, it is useful to remind the facts to some people who consider themselves belonging to the centre of intelligence on Earth and the ultimate reference point based just on several decades out of the whole history of mankind. Mother India’s post was not about India, but about clichés? Sure, people who live in very severe economic conditions despite working very hard may sometimes be forced to do things that people leaving in “lucky countries” may do less often. But… who can say the “first world” if free from plagiarism and misconduct? Then just read the Retraction Watch… There you will learn about the most sophisticated ways of scientific misconduct and plagiarism. Likely, the number of misconducted papers from China and India will grow, but if you divide them by the population and even by the country’s number of publications, the figures may be far from shocking, and for some other nations they may be not better at all. By the way, if for a Chinese The Lancet publication earns about $65K, how many times more can a 39-Impact Factor paper add to an American or other Western high profile researcher’s earnings in grants, salaries, promotions, etc during his or her career?

    1. My total IF score is in excess of 300, which is modest in the medical sciences but respectable in other fields. Yet, I have never drawn not a single penny of benefit. It makes me sick to see people using money to be the basal incentive in science. If these people (and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way) were not incentivized by money, how many scientists would stay in science?

  5. The funny thing is that most if not almost all of the complaints about Chinese academics are true about US academics too, although the compensation improvements for impact factor are a bit more obfuscated and less brazen.

      1. Dear Isaac, I like the sound of that. Could you provide more factual insight about how US scientists are rewarded based on the IF scores? Any literature links would be appreciated.

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