The trial of Chinese urologist Xiao Chuanguo for organizing beatings of two of his critics started on a Sunday. By Monday, the Beijing district judge had handed him a five-and-a-half- month sentence, and lesser or equal terms to other men involved. One of the victims, Fang Shimin, a self-styled science watchdog who investigates misconduct claims under the name Fang Zhouzi on his New Threads website, says the penalty is too light. But the judgment has already made Xiao persona non grata in China.

The attacks involved a hammer, steel rods and pepper spray (see Nature 467, 511; 2010). Xiao's supporters argue that the incident involving Fang Shimin followed a long-standing feud between the two men. The Chinese scientific establishment is right to condemn Xiao for his crime, but the authorities should not use this case to divert attention from wider failings in the research community.

The science ministry issued an online statement after the verdict, saying that Xiao “should be condemned for his vicious misconduct and lack of integrity”. The ministry wants nothing to do with Xiao, taking pains to disavow claims that he was chief scientist on a ministry-sponsored science project. The China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), the country's largest non-governmental organization of scientists and engineers, likewise welcomed the judgment. Meanwhile, the widespread and debilitating failures in China's scientific community go on largely uncontested, even though they have created fertile ground for this ugly episode.

Lack of monitoring and regulation in China means false CVs and scientific misconduct are rife there. The laxity can lead to a blurring of the lines between what is considered acceptable and unacceptable scientific behaviour, especially among young researchers. Channels of complaint about misconduct exist, but fear of identification and doubts over effectiveness drive many to launch unofficial, often anonymous attacks. Reasoned examination of facts and allegations gives way to vitriol and fear.

The impacts can be widespread. More than 250 patients in China are now threatening to sue hospitals, or Xiao directly, because they claim a surgical procedure he pioneered — which aims to restore bladder and bowel function in patients with spina bifida or spinal-cord injuries — doesn't work. The procedure has its critics, who say it should be considered experimental (K. M. Peters et al. J. Urol. 184, 702–708; 2010). But others back it, and last month 31 scientists (including 22 from the United States) posted a letter of support on the CareCure Community website, which is largely devoted to discussions of cutting-edge spinal therapies. The letter, signed by many who use Xiao's method, asks that his “scientific and humanitarian contributions to the world” are considered. With Xiao's conviction, will his technique get a fair trial?

Chinese government officials often promise to deal with scientific misconduct. This time they should do more than just punish hammer-wielding thugs and take steps to create a system that properly monitors fraud and plagiarism, checks reasonable allegations, prosecutes libellous ones and protects whistleblowers. The careers of scientists, the health of patients and the scientific future of the nation are at stake.