Illustration of a hand grabbing a paper

China’s science ministry is set to introduce its most comprehensive rules so far for dealing with research misconduct. The measures, which come into effect next month, outline what constitute violations and appropriate punishments. They will apply to anyone engaged in science-and-technology activities, including researchers, reviewers and heads of institutions.

The policy also includes, for the first time, violations by independent contractors, such as those who sell academic papers, fabricate data and write or submit articles on behalf of researchers. The rule is designed to tackle researchers’ widespread use of companies known as paper mills, which produce manuscripts that are often based on falsified data.

Some scientists say the regulations will help to curb bad behaviour and improve research integrity in Chinese institutions. They are a “big step forward”, says Li Tang, who studies science policy at Fudan University in Shanghai.

But others doubt the changes will make a difference, because misconduct regulations already exist, but are not enforced.

“They don’t need to make new rules. There are plenty of old regulations ready,” says Shi-Min Fang, a writer based in San Diego, California, whose work focuses on exposing scientific fraud in China.

To have a real impact, the Chinese government needs to make an example of a high-profile case, says Xiaotian Chen, a librarian at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. “There should be consequences for authors with research misconducts, especially those in powerful and important positions.”

China has had a long-standing issue with research misconduct, which has drawn global attention. Cases have involved bribery, plagiarism, falsified data and forged peer review, and have led to a large number of article retractions.

Numerous policies were introduced as long ago as 2006 to address the problems, but scientists say that non-enforcement has only aggravated the situation. “The current situation is worse than a decade ago,” says Fang. “Misconduct has become systematic and commercialized. Now there are many paper-writing companies helping researchers write and publish fake papers.”

New rules

In 2017, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) committed to cracking down on research misconduct in the wake of a major scandal. This involved the retraction of 107 research papers in the cancer journal Tumor Biology, previously published by Springer Nature. The articles were retracted because their reviews had been fabricated, and many papers had been produced by paper mills. (Nature is published by Springer Nature, and Nature’s news team is editorially independent of the publisher.)

The latest rules are a result of the ministry’s promise, says Fang. According to the measures, research misconduct includes falsifying results, plagiarism, running experiments without ethics approval, meddling in the peer-review process and embezzling research funds. Researchers whose actions cause severe harm or financial losses will be given harsher punishments.

Penalties can range from warnings to revoking bonuses, awards and honorary titles, and even banning researchers from applying for government funding, temporarily or permanently. Researchers who report their own violations or admit to mistakes and attempt to correct them will be given lighter punishments. But repeat offenders and those who cover up misconduct or intimidate whistle-blowers will be dealt with severely.

The policy also gives institutions or people under investigation the right of appeal, including through the courts, which is important for due process, says Wang Fei, a science-policy researcher at Dalian University of Technology who has written about research integrity.

Serious violations must also be made public, according to the policy. “This requirement for transparency will help to deter misconduct,” says Li.

Mixed reactions

Li says the rules will encourage researchers to cooperate in investigations, and institutions to dig deeper into potential misconduct, she says. But for the measures to successfully curb bad behaviour, the government will need to hold those who violate the rules to account, says Li. “What happens next is crucial.”

But China’s track record suggests that the latest rules will have no effect on reducing misconduct, because existing rules have failed to stop such behaviour, says Fang.

It has become “the culture that fake data, photoshopped images and fake peer reviews are OK, and that outsourcing research and writing to paper mills is OK”, says Chen. In February, for example, a group of researchers identified more than 450 papers with problematic images by authors affiliated with Chinese hospitals, which the researchers say probably came from a paper mill.

Chen says that some paper mills continue to advertise their services openly, despite several government agencies publishing rules in 2015 that prohibit researchers from using these firms to write and submit their manuscripts, revise content other than grammar, or provide false peer review. The government needs to crack down on these services, says Chen.

The MOST did not respond to Nature’s questions about whether existing misconduct regulations are being enforced.

But Li notes that regulations have improved research integrity in China, although it is difficult to point to evidence directly linking the two. Increased reporting of research misconduct cases from China could just reflect stricter policing, and that the issue is being taken more seriously in China and abroad, she says.