“I had no choice but to commit [research] misconduct,” admits a researcher at an elite Chinese university. The shocking revelation is documented in a collection of several dozen anonymous, in-depth interviews offering rare, first-hand accounts of researchers who engaged in unethical behaviour — and describing what tipped them over the edge. An article based on the interviews was published in April in the journal Research Ethics1.

The interviewer, sociologist Zhang Xinqu, and his colleague Wang Peng, a criminologist, both at the University of Hong Kong, suggest that researchers felt compelled, and even encouraged, to engage in misconduct to protect their jobs. This pressure, they conclude, ultimately came from a Chinese programme to create globally recognized universities. The programme prompted some Chinese institutions to set ambitious publishing targets, they say.

The article offers “a glimpse of the pain and guilt that researchers felt” when they engaged in unethical behaviour, says Elisabeth Bik, a scientific-image sleuth and consultant in San Francisco, California.

But other researchers say the findings paint an overly negative picture of the Chinese programme. Zheng Wenwen, who is responsible for research integrity at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, under the Ministry of Science and Technology, in Beijing, says that the sample size is too small to draw reliable conclusions. The study is based on interviews with staff at just three elite institutes — even though more than 140 institutions are now part of the programme to create internationally competitive universities and research disciplines.

Rankings a game

In 2015, the Chinese government introduced the Double First-Class Initiative to establish “world-class” universities and disciplines. Universities selected for inclusion in the programme receive extra funding, whereas those that perform poorly risk being delisted, says Wang.

Between May 2021 and April 2022, Zhang conducted anonymous virtual interviews with 30 faculty members and 5 students in the natural sciences at three of these elite universities. The interviewees included a president, deans and department heads. The researchers also analysed internal university documents.

The university decision-makers who were interviewed at all three institutes said they understood it to be their responsibility to interpret the goals of the Double First-Class scheme. They determined that, to remain on the programme, their universities needed to increase their standing in international rankings — and that, for that to happen, their researchers needed to publish more articles in international journals indexed in databases such as the Science Citation Index.

Some universities treated world university rankings as a “game” to win, says Wang.

As the directive moved down the institutional hierarchy, pressure to perform at those institutes increased. University departments set specific and hard-to-reach publishing criteria for academics to gain promotion and tenure.

Some researchers admitted to engaging in unethical research practices for fear of losing their jobs. In one interview, a faculty head said: “If anyone cannot meet the criteria [concerning publications], I suggest that they leave as soon as possible.”

Zhang and Wang describe researchers using services to write their papers for them, falsifying data, plagiarizing, exploiting students without offering authorship and bribing journal editors.

One interviewee admitted to paying for access to a data set. “I bought access to an official archive and altered the data to support my hypotheses.”

An associate dean emphasized the primacy of the publishing goal. “We should not be overly stringent in identifying and punishing research misconduct, as it hinders our scholars’ research efficiency.”

Not the whole picture

The authors “hit the nail on the head” in describing the relationship between institutional pressure and research misconduct, says Wang Fei, who studies research-integrity policy at Dalian University of Technology.

But she says it’s not the whole picture. Incentives to publish high-quality research are part of broader reforms to the higher-education system that “have been largely positive”. “The article focuses almost exclusively on the negative aspects, potentially misleading readers into thinking that Chinese higher education reforms are severely flawed and accelerating research misconduct.”

Tang Li, a science- and innovation-policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, agrees. The first-hand accounts are valuable, but the findings could be biased, she says, because those who accepted the interview might have strong feelings and might not represent the opinions of those who declined to be interviewed.

Zheng disagrees with the study’s conclusions. In 2020, the government issued a directive for Double First-Class institutes. This states specifically that evaluations should be comprehensive, and not just focus on numbers of papers, she says. Research misconduct is a result not of the Double First-Class initiative, but of an “insufficient emphasis on research integrity education”, says Zheng.

Punishing misconduct

The larger problem, says Xiaotian Chen, a library and information scientist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, is a lack of transparency and of systems to detect and deter misconduct in China. Most people do the right thing, despite the pressure to publish, says Chen, who has studied research misconduct in China. The pressure described in the paper could just be “an excuse to cheat”.

The Chinese government has introduced several measures to crack down on misconduct, including defining what constitutes violations and specifying appropriate penalties. They have also banned cash rewards for publishing in high-impact journals.

Wang Peng says that government policies need to be more specific about how they define and punish different types of misconduct.

But Zheng says that, compared with those that apply in other countries, “the measures currently taken by the Chinese government to punish research misconduct are already very stringent”.

The authors also ignore recent government guidance for elite Chinese institutions to break with the tendency of evaluating faculty members solely on the basis of their publications and academic titles, says Zheng.

Tang points out that the road to achieving integrity in research is long. “Cultivating research integrity takes time and requires orchestrated efforts from all stakeholders,” she says.

And the pressure to publish more papers to drive up university rankings “is not unique to China”, says Bik. “Whenever and wherever incentives and requirements are set up to make people produce more, there will be people ‘gaming the metrics’.”