I can believe you had difficulties contacting the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) for your Special Report (Nature 441, 392–393; 2006). As executive editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, I recently attempted to contact the NSFC to help us investigate an allegation of misconduct in a study the journal had accepted from Chinese authors.
A whistle-blower's e-mail from someone at the authors' institution indicated that data in the study were fabricated. The authors had collaborated with the dean of their university, so we were unsure whether contacting the institution would result in an unbiased investigation. As China does not have a supervisory body akin to the US Office of Research Integrity, we thought the NSFC — which had funded the study — would help.
Despite multiple e-mails, in English and in Chinese, the NSFC did not respond. Through a personal contact, I was put in touch with the director of the division that granted funding to the senior author. After repeated e-mails, I received the following: “I received the letter you written and we discussed the things you written to him. We have to say it is very difficult for us to determine whether their work is true. Because there are more than 50,000 proposals and about 10,000 grants supported in the Foundation every year. So we think maybe you have to find other way to make sure the thing.”
This statement indicates that the NSFC does not prioritize the policing of misconduct. If it is not responsible for, or is too busy to investigate, the researchers it funds, then surely such behaviour is tolerated and endorsed?
The story has a sad ending. When confronted, the senior author claimed to have misplaced the primary data during a move between laboratories. In addition, the co-corresponding author (who signed our authorship agreement form upon acceptance, and who wrote to our office inquiring about the publication date) later claimed never to have seen more than the title of the work and asked to be removed as a co-author. The authors have now withdrawn their article.
Alongside Xin-Yuan Fu and his 120 co-signatories, I too eagerly await a response from Chinese authorities on whether they will establish a body to police misconduct.