Chinese scientists dismissed after 70 suspect papers

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[BEIJING] Two Chinese university lecturers have been dismissed after 70 papers they published in an international journal were revoked because of alleged fraud.

Hua Zhong and Tao Liu, lecturers at Jinggangshan University in south China’s Jiangxi Province, published the papers in 2007 in Acta Crystallographica Section E. But last month (19 December) the journal announced that the work was fraudulent and the lecturers were dismissed from their posts ten days later.

The incident is the latest in a spate of scientific fraud cases in China. The country tried to deal with the problem in 2006 by drawing up rules for tackling misconduct (see China sets up rules to combat scientific misconduct) and updating these by describing seven acts of academic misconduct, and their resulting penalties, in 2009 (see China issues another crackdown on scientific misconduct).

But Fang Zhouzi, a critic who has been fighting academic fraud in China for years, said that a profound change was needed in the way researchers’ work is evaluated.

Fang told SciDev.Net that Chinese universities and academic institutions attach too much importance to the quantity, rather than quality, of published papers.

"A researcher is rewarded and promoted largely based on the number of published papers, which poses dangerous incentives for researchers to commit fraud," he said.

A university spokesperson said that the fraud had arisen because of the lecturers’ lack of moral integrity, saying that the school was fully unaware of it.

But Fang said that the university has responsibility because it sets a quantitative standard for evaluating researchers’ work.

He highlighted an announcement by Jinggangshan University in 2006, which stated that a researcher could be rewarded with 5,000 Chinese yuan (US$733) if publishing a paper in a journal catalogued by the Science Citation Index (SCI), which monitors leading journals.

Fang said that the award for publishing a paper catalogued by SCI can, in some universities, reach 10,000 yuan (US$1,466). And if the paper is published in top publications like Nature or Science, the researcher can be awarded as much as 100,000 yuan (US$14,660).

Li Wei, a chemistry professor from Wuhan University of Science and Engineering, said that less influential universities are more keen on financial incentives for publishing papers, but in almost all universities, the number of published papers is closely related to the promotion of a researcher.

"Although the Chinese government declares zero tolerance on academic fraud, in practice, few researchers are seriously punished for their misconduct. Universities tend to cover for those offenders with high academic status for fear of their power and the reputation of the school," said Fang.

China has said that it wants to be a research superpower by 2020.