When the cancer research journal Tumor Biology retracted 107 papers last year, a dubious new world record was set — and the world’s scientists took notice.
Largely because all 107 papers were penned by Chinese researchers.
“The fact they were all from one journal was eye opening”, Ivan Oransky, who co-founded Retraction Watch, a publication that investigates scientific misconduct, said.
But it wasn’t a first for the journal, now published by Sage. In 2016, it retracted 25 papers because of similar doubts over their integrity.
The incidents expose a deeper, darker problem for science globally.
A growing black market is pedalling fake research papers, fake peer reviews, and even entirely fake research results to anyone who will pay.
“Organised crime in certain countries has realised there is a lot of money to be made here,” medically-trained Dr Oransky said.
“This really is a shadowy world.”
China’s noble quest for a Nobel Prize
Under President Xi Jinping, China has ambitions to become a global leader in science and technology and is making big investments in that effort.
A decade ago, the country launched the Thousand Talents Program to attract world-class scientists to China, setting its sights on winning Nobel Prizes.
“The biggest telescopes in the world now are being built in China,” David Cyranoski, a Shanghai-based correspondent with Nature, said.
“Quantum computing, gene editing … the future of artificial intelligence is something that they’re very keen on.
“They want to be comprehensive, from basic to applied.”
The pressure on Chinese scientists to publish their work in prestigious, English-language journals is now immense.
This has created new opportunities for China’s thriving black market.
Companies offering standard editing and translation services to scientists have, in some cases, become a source of serious fraud.
“People can ask them to produce a paper of a certain kind, and they will produce the figures, the data, everything, and give it to you.
“You see this kind of very large-scale fraud going on in China.”
Professor Cong Cao, a leading scholar in innovation studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, said the market for these kind of services is large.
“In China, for a scientist to be promoted, they have to have a certain number of papers,” he said.
Chinese graduate students and medical clinicians now also face the same strict requirements.
Some universities also pay huge cash rewards — over $US40,000 — if a scientist succeeds in publishing in a high-profile journal like Science or Nature.
Many see these financial incentives as part of the problem, especially in a country where average academic salaries are very low.
“The incentives are all misaligned,” Dr Oransky said.
Professor Cao said the aim was to encourage scientists to be innovative.
“[But] there are some unintended consequences of this kind of policy,” he said.
A growing marketplace for fake science
In China’s shadowy scientific marketplace, scientists can even pay to have their name included on scientific papers they didn’t work on.
“A company will sell authorship and say, ‘if you want to be the first author or the corresponding author you have to pay this much, and if you’re going to be somewhere in the middle you can pay this much’,” Mr Cyranoski said.
The order in which authors’ names appear on a scientific paper reflects their role in the research — and can have a significant impact on a scientist’s career progression and status.
When a scientific journal retracts a paper it’s a sign that something is wrong with the study.
“It’s a statement by the journal that this result, this finding, this conclusion is not reliable anymore. Do not rely on this,” Dr Oransky said.
Not all retractions point to scientific misconduct. Sometimes a scientist might discover an unintended mistake in their own work and ask to have the paper pulled from publication.
This is considered good practice, because it prevents other scientists wasting time with the study’s results or being led down rabbit holes in their own research.
But retractions are on the rise, and Dr Oransky says around two thirds of cases point to something more nefarious.
“Either falsification, which means you made things look better than they were; fabrication, which means you made it up; or plagiarism.”
Fake peer reviewers
Science is driven by peer review — a process via which research is critiqued by peers in a related field, before it is published in a scientific journal.
Journal editors rely on peer review to help them interrogate the veracity and accuracy of research.
But peer review is now facing its own integrity crisis.
More than 600 papers have been retracted since 2012 for fake peer review, according to Dr Oransky.
“Arguably many more than that,” he said.
“I think we’re being naive and trusting the process too much. It’s a human endeavour, it’s only one filter.
“But with fake peer review, it’s actually a whole other level of malfeasance.”
The papers retracted by Tumor Biology were suspected to have exploited fake peer reviews.
This is when a scientist, or a company representing them, submits a paper to a journal and recommends to the journal editor possible reviewers they think are qualified to assess the work.
But the email addresses they provide for those reviewers are fake.
“The addresses take them back to the company or to the individual who is trying to publish the paper,” Mr Cyranoski said.
“And, of course, then they just give the paper rave reviews.”
Dr Oransky and his colleagues at Retraction Watch have managed to speak to scientists who employ this deceit. One was a South Korean scientist.
“He ended up having to retract 28 papers. And he blamed it on the people that he had hoodwinked.
“He actually said, ‘well, if those editors have been paying attention, they would have seen the problem’.”
Fake peer reviews do suggest a gross failure by journal editorial teams to source their own independent and trusted reviewers, but even prestigious publications have fallen prey to such scams.
“Science really prides itself on self-correction,” Dr Oransky said.
“It is important for public trust to know that when something is published we have reason to believe that it represents reality as best as a scientist can.
“A lot of this research is funded by our tax dollars … and it is in the service of humanity.”
A Government crackdown
Scientific misconduct is a growing global concern, and there is a risk of singling out China as the only hotspot.
But the Chinese Government knows it has a serious problem.
“It’s a challenge for the international scientific community to figure out whether a piece of research coming out of China is genuine or fake,” Professor Cao said.
“It also endangers international collaboration between Chinese scientists and their peers outside of China.”
In May, China announced a suite of reforms designed to crack down on scientific misconduct.
The pronouncement is significant, Mr Cyranosky believes, because it comes from the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
“It carries a lot of weight,” he said.
Scientists who have committed misconduct may end up on a lifelong blacklist and lose access to all future research funding.
China’s Ministry of Science and Technology will now manage investigations into scientific misconduct. This is a departure from other countries where individual institutions are often in charge, despite implicit conflicts of interest.
How punitive Chinese authorities could get remains to be seen.
“The party can rule by fear. It’s a dictatorship,” Dr Oransky said.
“They can decide this is going to be the rule, and they can make exemplars of people.
“We haven’t seen any cases prosecuted yet, but it’s very clear that China’s Government understands that the world is always going to be looking at what they’re doing.”
Sticks and carrots
Dr Oransky argues that preventing scientific misconduct needs both sticks and carrots.
These include strategies that promote openness and transparency in science, he argues, like data sharing and encouraging scientists to check each other’s work.
But Dr Oransky and colleagues are also calling for better peer review after research is published.
“We should reward people who come forward about problems in other people’s work, not in a punitive way, but actually looking at it and saying, ‘hey, that’s a problem, we should do something about it’, and give people the chance to correct the record,” he said.
“We are not seeing enough of that now.
“If you just scare the bejeezus out of everyone and say ‘don’t do this’, basic psychology tells you that isn’t going to solve the problem.”
The editor of Tumor Biology did not respond to Science Friction’s interview request.
By Natasha Mitchell