[BEIJING] Chinese scientists based overseas have written an open letter to officials in China urging them to set up a formal process to deal with allegations of scientific misconduct.
The letter dated 8 May was signed by 120 Chinese scientists, mostly based at US universities, and sent to China's science minister, the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other officials.
Since November 2005, several Chinese scientists have been accused of plagiarism, faking data or lying about their academic achievements (see Top Chinese academic under fire from 'science police').
Most of the allegations were first made public on a US-based Chinese website called New Threads, and were then widely reported and debated in the Chinese media (see Out to debunk: China's 'science police').
But the authors of the open letter say China's lack of a formal mechanism for dealing with such claims means "there is neither consistent punishment for the guilty nor legitimate protection of the innocent".
"I feel the situation has caused great confusion," says signatory Lin Shuo, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, United States. "The reputations of many scientists could be easily damaged."
"The public and the mass media do not have the necessary knowledge to judge the true situation," Lin told SciDev.Net.
The letter suggests steps China could take to resolve the problem. These include creating committees in each institution to investigate any claims, and using external committees if the dispute cannot be resolved.
"It is important that both the complainant and the respondent are legally protected and their identities are kept confidential during the investigation," says the letter.
It also urges China to set up compulsory courses for scientists and university students about research ethics, and the procedures for handling claims of scientific misconduct.
At a national level, the letter urges the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China to create agencies that will develop ways of investigating allegations of scientific misconduct.
Tao Jinsong, the science ministry's publicity chief said today (10 May), however, that the ministry was unaware of the letter.
Reacting to news of the letter, Fang Zhouzi, the US-trained biochemist who operates the New Threads website, told SciDev.Net that the lack of a formal procedure for punishing academic misconduct meant that an unofficial approach was needed.
"We cannot sit idly and let academic corruption spread before a formal procedure is issued," Fang told SciDev.Net.