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  • Out to debunk: China's 'science police'

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The recent scandal surrounding South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk has rocked China's academic community – and added fuel to a fierce debate over the country's so-called science police.

"Compared with the South Korean case, a Chinese academic scandal could be more serious. To maintain academic discipline, we need more science police like Fang Zhouzi," wrote Yingchuang Qiaozi last month in the online People's Daily.

Fang is a US-trained former biochemist who runs the New Threads website (www.xys.org), exposing scientific plagiarism and pseudoscience — research that appears scientific but does not follow the scientific method.

"'Science police' is just a name for unofficial figures who oppose pseudoscience," says Fang. "As long as there are people who cheat in the name of science, it is necessary to have science police to debunk them."

In December 2005, New Threads accused Qiu Xiaoqing, a professor of biomedicine at the Chengdu-based Sichuan University, of publishing fraudulent research in the November 2003 issue of Nature Biotechnology.

A Chengdu-based company that invested in the technology Qiu's paper described says the results could not be repeated.

Meanwhile, six of Qui's co-authors have asked Nature Biotechnology to withdraw their names from the paper, stating: "We can not tolerate to be manipulated by the corresponding author, Mr. Xiao-Qing Qiu [nor] remain a part of scientific fabrication."

Qiu, who declined to be interviewed, issued a statement on 16 January denying any wrongdoing.

Sichuan University is investigating the claims and says it will make its findings public when the enquiry is over. Andrew Marshall, editor of Nature Biotechnology, says the journal asked Qiu for an explanation — which it has since received — and will wait for the enquiry to conclude before taking action.

Back in November 2005, Fang claimed that professor Liu Hui of Beijing-based Tsinghua University had listed a paper by a US-based professor with a similar name in his resumé on the university website.

Beijing Youth Daily reported on 29 November that the university authorities had reprimanded Liu, who says the mistake was not his own but was a misprint by the Tsinghua Library, which compiled the list of papers.

In the same month, Fang also claimed that Liu Dengyi, vice-president of Anhui Normal University, had falsely claimed co-authorship of a 2001 paper in the American Journal of Botany and of three papers in the journal Ecology in his online resumé.

When Fang tried to find these papers, he found the American Journal of Botany paper was actually published in 1997 — without a contribution from Liu — and that the three Ecology papers did not exist. One of them was in fact published in the UK-based Journal of Ecology in 1993, but did not list Liu as an author.

SciDev.Net called Liu's office for a clarification, but after hearing the nature of the inquiry, the man who answered said Liu was not there. Today, Liu's online resumé contains no mention of the four papers.

The spread of pseudoscience

Fang told SciDev.Net that since 2000, he and others like him have exposed 300 cases of pseudoscience, plagiarism and other deceptions such as scientists faking their academic achievements.

He suggests that the low level of scientific literacy in Chinese society, and a general lack of scepticism among the public, are partly to blame for the spread of pseudoscience. He says the emergence of new websites covering science is also part of the problem because they often fail to check the veracity of information they publish.

Although most scientists Fang has accused respond to claim their innocence, none of them has yet accused Fang of libel. Nor, in the majority of cases, have they been investigated or punished by the science authorities.

One of Fang's supporters, He Zuoxiu, a renowned physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), says science police are needed because of a lack of strict disciplinary action in Chinese science.

Fang says that as long as people
cheat in the name of science,
it will be necessary to have
science police to debunk them

"When journal editors, scientists and heads of academic institutions are ready to expose pseudoscience and scientific plagiarism, and when those responsible can be punished severely, there will be no need for science police," says He.

But He thinks that things are getting worse as Chinese society becomes more materialistic, enabling "masters" of pseudoscience to bribe media outlets and even professional scientists to support their theories. He says the growing commercialism in China has penetrated science, leading some researchers to falsify data or plagiarise others' work in order to gain fame or funding.

Faced with this situation, says Fang, it is not enough for science authorities to "regulate" science — efforts from society are also needed.

However, Song Zhenghai, a senior researcher at the CAS Institute for the History of Natural Science, says people like Fang are not equipped to fulfil this role.

"Fang is a biologist, so how can he identify 'pseudoscience' in other sectors?" Song asks.

Song believes that activities of the science police can have serious repercussions for those accused. He says that by saying that Shandong University professor Zhang Yingqing's 'holographic biology' theory was pseudoscience, the science police precipitated the professor's death in November 2004.

According to the theory, each region of an embryo has its own corresponding region in the whole organism, and the shape and size of an organism's organs – such as the leaf of a tree, or a human hand – are related to the species' overall size and structure. The theory was applied in fields including acupuncture, agriculture and cloning.

Song says that after the science police criticised Zhang, Shangdong University stopped the courses he taught and withdrew funding. The resulting stress and poverty, says Song, led to Zhang's early death.

Who's watching the watchers?

While agreeing that China's scientists should be more disciplined, Liu Huajie, an associate professor at Peking University's Science Communication Research Centre, warns that there is no one checking the accusations made by people like Fang. "If he is wrong, the result could be disastrous."

Tian Song, an associate professor of the philosophy of science at Beijing Normal University, says Fang and others have gone to extremes to describe anything not proven by modern analytical science as pseudoscience, including the classical theories of traditional Chinese medicine.

"The science police's disdain of other forms of knowledge reflects scientific value, or better, modern analytical scientific value, has arrogated a supreme position in China which should have been shared by various knowledge, such as ethics and philosophy," Tian told SciDev.Net.

As Wang Dixing, a Beijing-based inventor, points out: "The science police use acceptance by the scientific community as a standard to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. But the scientific community is often conservative and would not, at least initially, accept revolutionary theories such as Copernicus's geocentric theory or Albert Einstein's theory of relativity."

"I cannot punish anyone", says Fang, who claims to have exposed hundreds of cases of pseudoscience or academic fraud


Fang admits that his scientific expertise outside biology may be limited, but basic science theories and logics learnt in colleges or even in high schools, along with the awareness of academic disciplines, have been enough to help him debunk pseudoscience.

He adds that many scientists who hate science plagiarism, but would not stand up because they feared offending authorities, have reported their findings of wrongdoing to him.

"I cannot punish anyone," says Fang. "All I can do is just to point out who is doing pseudoscience and plagiarism."

He Zuoxiu of CAS says the so-called science policing has not invaded other forms of knowledge. "We would not criticise religion or religious freedom. But if one claims to be doing science, he or she must do things with academic discipline and be ready to be monitored by any other scientist in a professional way."

Last September, in a first for China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China  published the names of three scientists punished for misconduct on its website. They were banned from applying for NSFC funding for three years (see China 'names and shames' scientists for misconduct).

NSFC says that since 1998, it has recorded 542 cases of alleged misconduct. Most were resolved without being made public.

But Fang says that the punishment is too slight and the practice of not revealing names of most of scientists accused of misconduct will fail to deter the others.

"In fact, many people who have produced pseudoscience and plagiarism have the support of officials, either in the government or in academia," Fang says.

China's Ministry of Science and Technology refuses to comment on whether the country will try to improve academic discipline in light of Hwang's case, and Fang's claims of widespread academic fraud and plagiarism.

"I hope the Chinese academic authorities will have the courage and capacity shown by the University of Seoul in the case of Hwang Woo-suk," says Fang.

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