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Frequent cases force China to face up to scientific fraud

The government is proposing new measures to combat misconduct and nepotism.

Pressure cooker: Fierce competition for funds may be contributing to a rise in cases of scientific misconduct. Credit: Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images

Six high-profile cases of scientific misconduct over eight months: for China's biomedical research, still struggling for global credibility, the frequent accusations of plagiarism, falsified data and fabricated resumes spell out a serious warning—one that the government is finally preparing to heed.

Chinese universities have traditionally failed to investigate or even acknowledge cases of misconduct. But in early March, Beijing-based Tsinghua University fired Hui Liu, a professor of medicine, after he was found to have claimed another researcher's papers as his own on his resumé. Then, in late June, Tongji University in Shanghai dismissed Jie Yang, dean of the university's school of life sciences, for allegedly stealing his colleagues' data.

We would be particularly cautious when cooperating with our domestic counterparts. Hong Lu, Kansas University Medical Center

The Ministry of Education also in May set up a research ethics committee to discipline researchers, and the Ministry of Science and Technology has proposed measures such as the random selection of grant reviewers to combat nepotism.

Most recently, Yong Shang, China's vice minister of science and technology, announced on 10 July that the ministry plans to set up an independent agency to monitor the research projects it funds.

In total, more than 10 cases of misconduct have surfaced in the past year in fields ranging from information technology to biomedical research. But research in the life sciences may be particularly susceptible to fraud because it is often difficult to reproduce exactly, says Shimin Fang, a former biochemistry researcher. Fang now runs a website called New Threads (www.xys.org) that lists allegations of fraud and identified five of the six cases, including that of Hui Liu.

In the rush to succeed, China has not set up a robust system to adequately manage and audit grants and to safeguard against misconduct, says Yigong Shi, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. The pressure to secure grants may have led some scientists to fabricate research, he says. “Previously, the funding and the level of competition in the field were much lower.”

China's investment in life sciences has grown as much as 400% in the past five years to RMB13 billion (US$1.6 billion).

China's large pool of patients and cheap skilled biotech researchers have been highly attractive for collaborators outside China, but the recent incidents have struck a note of caution for Chinese scientists abroad.

“We have heard some rumors before, and with the cases, we would be particularly cautious when cooperating with our domestic counterparts,” says Hong Lu, a researcher at Kansas University Medical Center.

To restore their confidence, the government should routinely investigate allegations of misconduct and openly discipline those found to be guilty, researchers say.

In the long term, adds Princeton's Shi, China must also develop other measures of success rather than rely exclusively on publications in journals with high impact factors. “When the funding and rewards are endowed to the true scientific excellence,” he says, “fraud in life science can be largely avoided.”

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Jia, H. Frequent cases force China to face up to scientific fraud. Nat Med 12, 867 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm0806-867a

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