Chinese scientists admit to faking research over institutional pressure

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Chinese scientists felt pressured to engage in unethical research practices out of fear of losing their jobs, a study found.

The Chinese government’s 2015 “Double First-Class Scheme” called on universities to boost their global rankings by publishing more articles in international journals. One faculty head reportedly told academics they should “leave as soon as possible” if they did not meet publication targets, according to science journal Nature.

Citing such pressures, academics admitted to “falsifying data, plagiarizing, exploiting students without offering authorship, and bribing journal editors.” However, other Chinese scientists said the paper painted an overly negative picture and that its author only spoke to a small sample of academics.

Research in China suffers from the problem of “bad incentives,” The Economist argued. Chinese universities have published more scientific papers than any other country since 2017, partly owing to researchers being rewarded for quantity over quality: About 46% of around 50,000 retracted studies collated by CrossRef and Retraction Watch are from China. University leaders tend to be government officials who are good at chasing targets but poor at fostering good science, a professor at Hangzhou Dianzi University told the magazine. The problem may not be exclusive to China: A 2023 paper found that the UK’s performance-based funding allocation system incentivized poor quality research, with papers published just before evaluation deadlines featuring in lower-impact journals and receiving fewer citations.

Chinese academics are encouraged to publish in international journals, but this trend may be reversing as researchers try to build up a portfolio of home-grown journals. That’s partly because authors have to pay journals to get their papers published, and China wants to capture some of that spend, the co-author of a 2023 report on the Chinese science publishing market told Science. The Chinese government and universities may also want to move away from Western-dominated research agendas so they can focus on topics that better serve the country’s interests, a higher-education researcher at the University of Hong Kong argued.

Fraudulent research practices aren’t the only problem: Advocates told Nature that unethical studies on Chinese minority groups like the Uyghur aren’t being retracted fast enough. In 2023, the Dutch academic publisher Elsevier retracted a 2019 article by Chinese and Danish researchers titled “Analysis of Uyghur and Kazakh populations using the Precision ID Ancestry Panel” after an investigation revealed they had not obtained ethical approval to collect genetic samples. “Given how coercive the overall environment has been for the Uyghurs [in China], it’s not really possible for Uyghurs to say no [to the collection of their DNA],” an Asia expert at Human Rights Watch told.

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