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China strengthens its campaign against scientific misconduct

New publishing standards aim for clarity on plagiarism, fabrication, and authorship

by Hepeng Jia, special to C&EN
September 8, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 35


Photo of Wang Zhigang.
Credit: Imagine China/Newscom
China's Ministry of Science and Technology, led by Wang Zhigang, investigates misconduct in the natural sciences.

Amid increasing attention to scientific research integrity in China, the country has adopted a new set of standards to more clearly define misconduct in publishing journal articles. Experts hope the new clarity will make it easier to discipline researchers who violate the standards.

The State Administration of Press and Publication, the agency in charge of China’s publishing sector, released and adopted in July the Academic Publishing Specification—Definition of Academic Misconduct for Journals. Other standards developed by the agency cover citation and translation practices and the use of ancient Chinese.

The publishing specification defines and distinguishes plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. It also addresses inappropriate authorship, duplicate or multiple submissions, and overlapping publications.

Managing misconduct

China appears to be increasing efforts to address scientific misconduct as allegations of fabricated data, faked peer review, plagiarism, and unethical studies have piled up and journals have retracted hundreds of papers from Chinese labs.

May 2018: The Communist Party of China and the State Council direct the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) to investigate cases of misconduct in the natural sciences. They also direct MOST to establish a body to establish definitions of misconduct and create systems for managing investigations and protecting whistle-blowers.

November 2018: MOST, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and 39 other agencies jointly release a portfolio of punitive measures that they can use to address misconduct.

December 2018: The Ministry of Education rescinds the Changjiang Scholar honor—one of the country’s most prestigious academic awards—from a sociologist for misconduct in publishing and from an anthropologist and a literature scholar for sexual harassment.

June 2019: The Communist Party of China and the State Council release guidelines for assessing scientists. The guidelines emphasize the importance of a person’s research and reduce the weight given to the number of papers published.

July 2019: The government releases publishing standards addressing plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, authorship, and duplicate or overlapping submissions. It also moves to establish a national committee on research ethics.

The standards follow several high-profile incidents of academic misconduct that affected China’s reputation in scientific research. Two years ago, for example, 107 Chinese papers were retracted by Tumor Biology, mostly for faked peer review.

To address research integrity problems, in May 2018 the ruling Communist Party of China and the State Council, the highest executive branch of government, issued a set of comprehensive guidelines to clarify which groupsoversee academic misconduct and what sanctions they can issue.

In November 2018, more than 40 ministries and agencies of the central government jointly enacted a portfolio of punitive measures that could be used to discipline researchers found guilty of misconduct. Those measures include job termination, loss of loans or grants, and restriction of registering companies and listing them in stock markets.

In June, the party and the State Council released a set of guidelines recommending that scientists be assessed not solely on the number of papers published or patents awarded but also on the long-term importance of the research to society and the economy.

The series of measures, including the publishing standards, indicate how important scientific integrity is to China’s top leadership, says Ren Shengli, executive editor of the Science China journals, which are published by Science China Press in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Another indication of top government officials’ determination to address research integrity is that the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee on Deepening Reform of the Party moved in July to establish a national committee on research ethics, Ren says. Although no details on the ethics commission have been released, observers widely believe that it will take over and centralize supervision and management of research ethics from agencies such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Health Commission.

Li Zhenzhen is a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institutes of Science and Development and is the lead author of the publishing standards. She agrees that China’s top leadership is serious about research integrity and scientific ethics. With all the new rules enacted over the past couple of years, policy makers thought it necessary to define the various types of misconduct to reduce ambiguity. The publishing standards “will make the disciplining regulations more operable,” she says.

She notes, however, that the standards themselves cannot eliminate misconduct. Universities must train their students and scientists to be conscious of ethical research practices, and authorities must decisively punish wrongdoers. Neither is well done in China, Li says.

The editors of China’s journals must also get on board. Fan Jingqun, director of the center for journal management at Huazhong Agricultural University, says that he and his colleagues are learning to use the new publishing standards—but he warns that existing editors may still insist on their own judgment and procedures to deal with suspected misconduct rather than following the new standards.

Hepeng Jia is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, New York.



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