Scientific Research Growth and Misconduct in China—Is it a Problem?

Scientific Research Growth and Misconduct in China—Is it a Problem?

By 2016, China has surpassed America to become the largest generator of research papers based data from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report, as 426,000 published studies accounted for 18.6% of the publications indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database. This production resulted, at least in part, from a 1998 national strategy to establish world-class academic research standing. Evidence indicates that this pressure for global excellence, and perhaps even national superiority, has created pressures resulting in academic dishonesty as evidence of incidents has grown since 2002 totaling according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences 64 cases between 2007 and 2017—in 2016 alone at least ten research scientists were questioned and charged—occurring at 46 universities and one national research institute while 65% of academic misconduct occurred at top national universities. In China, many accused academics are disengaged and detached from their work.

China’s Economic Meteoric Rise Correlated with Positions of Scientific Researchers

Top researchers in China are in demand—such as Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin, facing questions about image manipulation in many academic research papers produced by the laboratory he leads. After all, scientists such as Xuetao are desired—sought after—by both central government and local authorities who select and place them in governing departments with the aim of competitive differentiation for their departments, agencies, and the like. Moreover, it is common that top research scientists, for example, hold esteemed positions in the Chinese Academy of Natural Sciences or Engineering, leaders of universities, and the president or another holder of high title for professional associations, domestically or abroad, while maintaining their role as head of a national laboratory.

Factors Driving Growing Incidents of Dishonesty

The stage has been set that a globally historic economic boom was driven since China’s decision to embrace global economic trade, dating back to the 1970s. The country has since applied a combination of a hybrid of economic models (state planning, regional planning, markets, etc.) to become the world’s second-largest economy as measured by GDP. Scientific research represents a fundamental underpinning of this meteoric rise, and healthcare and life sciences have been identified by the Chinese government of fundamental importance for the national interest.

Research scientist demands intensified and many found themselves serving on boards and committees for government and industry. For example, top scientists often recruit doctoral students, especially postdoctoral researchers or early-stage career academics, to conduct research under their supervision. Situations often arise where there is no managerial oversight.

Moreover, China’s national regulations for scholarly integrity were first released in the early 2000s with what could be deemed overly broad rules, lacking specificity and precise rules, often making enforcement of such rules difficult.

Evidence exists, according to a professor from the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University and co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research program, Futao Huang, writing for Times Higher Education, that the universities themselves are hesitant to fully prosecute top academics within their ranks. After all, serious academic brand tarnishing can result in consequences such as reduced government funding. Examples include cases where at least Western society (namely America but also Europe) believes examples of scientific fraud are not brought to light fast enough. 

Call for Tighter Regulations

The Chinese government has sensed this growing challenge, and by September 2019, released national regulations for investigating and addressing academic integrity, reports Mr. Huang. By offering greater specificity, the updates rules establish measured responses to academic dishonesty cases. With a focus on how universities should investigate issues of scientific integrity and on establishing a framework for decisions (e.g., penalties such as the cancellation of academic titles to losing funding, etc.), they don’t go far enough according to Professor Huang.

Huang Recommendations

Huang suggests that to fully address academic dishonesty, China needs further regulatory and institutional changes manifest in a series of governmental policy steps to drive better outcomes. Some recommendations include 1) establish a more comprehensive preventive quality control framework for academic research, especially at the institutional level (e.g., ethics, etc.); 2) rules ensuring top scientists are not over-committed, and hence not able to manage bustling research activity under their name 3) independent or third-party investigating committee for purposes of investigation 4) research to the extent practicable should be shielded from political or commercial conflict of interest and 5) general policies to keep leading research scientists as close to their research as possible.

The Goal: Human Progress

TrialSite News represents a platform, the coverage of clinical research, much of which originates out of academia. China has emerged as a growing leader in drug R&D, and with this growth comes responsibilities such as more transparency and the establishment of a framework for leadership in academic research. But the same is true for all nations, including those in the “West” where there are plenty of incidents of misconduct and fraud in the biomedical sciences. Ultimately, true leadership in this domain, driven by fundamental principles of human progress, quality, and growth, is practiced and not preached to those whose ideals and ideas ultimately contribute to these principles, undoubtedly finding their way to a good place.