Four in 10 biomedical papers out of China are tainted by misconduct, says new survey

Chinese biomedical researchers estimate that 40% of research in their country has been affected in some way by misconduct, according to a new survey.

The authors are quick to caution against putting too much stock in this figure due to the subjective nature of the survey, published in Science and Engineering Ethics. The estimates also spanned a wide range, with a standard deviation of ±24%. But they say that the responses to this question and others on the survey suggest that scientists in the region feel academic misconduct remains a major problem that authorities have failed to adequately address. (Indeed, a recent analysis from Quartz using Retraction Watch data showed that researchers based in China publish more papers retracted for fake peer reviews than all other countries put together.)

The survey was designed by employees at Medjaden, a Hong Kong-based editing company that assists mainland Chinese biomedical researchers publishing in English-language journals. They invited all of their registered users by email to complete two surveys—roughly 10,000 users in 2010 and 15,000 in 2015. Like most online surveys, this one had a low response rate—around 5%, so caveats about sampling bias apply.

Study co-author Hua He, who is also Medjaden’s CEO, said:

To be very honest, no one can really know the actual statistics. And the data we collected from surveys are based on personal experience or subjective individual perception. […] So I would suggest we look at the data not literally, but rather use them as an indicator to draw a bigger picture.

This bigger picture, she said, shows that perceptions among biomedical researchers have changed little between 2010 and 2015—despite Chinese authorities’ efforts to crack down on academic misconduct. Overall, 55% of respondents thought that academic conduct was “serious,” “very serious,” or “extremely serious,” and 71% thought that authorities were paying little to no attention to the issue. Roughly as many thought that punishments for academic misconduct were too lenient.

The survey also shows that scientists strongly feel authorities have done little to address the underlying publish-or-perish environment that breeds misconduct; 72% thought that reforms to current systems of academic assessment was the most important measure, with only 13% prioritizing stronger systems of monitoring for misconduct.

Hua He told us:

We think the most important factor thought to be associated with scientific misconduct, which is the academic assessment system in China, has to be fundamentally solved to tackle this problem. So I think the main problem largely remains.

The forms of misconduct that were most concerning to respondents—ahead of falsification, fabrication, and duplication—were plagiarism (25%) and the “inclusion of someone without permission or contribution in the authorship” (28%).

The latter encompasses two behaviors, the first of which is putting more famous names on the author list without permission to enhance a paper’s credibility. But the bulk of cases in this category—roughly 70%, estimates study co-author and Medjaden editor-in-chief Hua-Xiang Xia —refers to adding names to the author list as a favor.

This is known as “gift authorship,” said education policy researcher Shuangye Chen of East China Normal University in Shanghai, who was not involved in Medjaden’s study. Although academic authorship back-scratching can happen anywhere and is often regarded as simple courtesy, she said,

It’s more complicated in the Chinese context. […] They try to do it as a kind of collective. They know that someone who is [up for promotion] needs this kind of paper or authorship. They would gift this kind of authorship, not as an individual act, but to benefit the whole group or the whole lab.

This practice has a darker side when entrenched lab hierarchies and power dynamics deny first author status to junior researchers who did the bulk of the work in favor of more senior researchers.

Chen told us she thinks the study’s figure of 40% is significantly inflated from reality due to the low response rate, citing Chinese studies that suggest its more around 20%. But she agreed that reforming academic assessments is key to stemming the tide of misconduct.

We are in a stage of trying to push and press those young scholars, especially, to publish more and higher quality papers. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this kind of survival crisis. Being under that kind of high pressure is most conducive to academic misconduct.

Xia argued that although the response rate is low, those motivated to respond may be a relatively neutral group of active researchers:

We’re getting firsthand information because they are true biomedical researchers. The response rate is only 5 or 6%, but I think the people who did respond to us are those who wanted to share their real perceptions.

But still, those are only perceptions of misconduct rates—not data on misconduct itself—so both he and study co-author Hua He also warned against overinterpreting the 40% figure.

This pressure to publish in English-language journals included in Thomson Reuters’ Science Citation Index (SCI) has given rise to editing companies like Medjaden in China. As our loyal readers know, some of these companies have been caught in unsavory practices in recent years. These include selling authorships (as covered by Science‘s Mara Hvistendahl) and creating fake reviewers to whisk manuscripts through peer review (which we reported on for Nature). These have led to mass retractions, like Springer’s recent batch of 107 papers retracted from a single journal.

Xia told us:

This has seriously jeopardized the image and reputation of scientific editing in China. […] Those companies, they have not been punished. The researchers, they are cheated.

The Chinese Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and other government organizations even issued guidelines for Chinese researchers last year that told them not to use third-party services in writing or submitting papers.

He and Xia told us that, to their knowledge, none of the papers they’ve worked on have been retracted, and editors will check original data and scan text for plagiarism whenever manuscripts raise concerns.

Medjaden says it hopes to root out these nefarious practices from their industry. In October 2015, Xia spearheaded the formation of the Alliance for Scientific Editing in China (ASEC), consisting of Medjaden and five other editing companies with operations in China. They adopted an editing code in line with standards from the international Committee on Publication Ethics.

Although it’s questionable how much of a difference self-imposed discipline can make, Xia said ASEC also plans to push for structural reforms. In March, they met with COPE representatives in Beijing to strategize opening a dialog with Chinese authorities on academic assessment reform.

Xia told us:

The reason causing the misconduct is the scientific assessment system. So we are trying to [change] that and hopefully with all this work, we can really help the scientists to do real research and publish quality papers.

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