New York, NY, United States, — Several persons on the faculty of Jinggangshan University, a Chinese university in the interior province of Jiangxi that was unknown until recently, must have had a miserable New Year’s Day. Their publications were found to be fraudulent and subsequently they were fired from their jobs.
Their troubles began on Dec. 19, when Acta Crystallographica Section E published an editorial stating that at least 70 crystal structures submitted by these Jinggangshan University scientists were falsified and therefore withdrawing these structures.
“For all of the problem structures,” the editorial pointed out, “the data sets used to refine two or more supposedly unique structures were in fact identical … with the cell parameters apparently manually altered by the authors concerned.”
Jinggangshan University responded swiftly to the serious and internationally embarrassing allegation. After an investigation into this not-so-sophisticated case, the university dismissed two key authors engaged in the scandal and took back the money that these scientists had received as rewards.
Of course, this isolated case is just the “tip of the iceberg” of academic fraud in China. For example, more than half of the Chinese scientists surveyed recently by the China Association for Science and Technology indicated that they were aware of incidents of scientific misconduct involving their colleagues. But it is unfortunate that most such cases have ended up with no investigation and no punishment of those implicated, especially when the suspects held leadership positions.
The Jinggangshan University case also points to a bigger problem in Chinese science. Publishing in journals catalogued by the Science Citation Index, a scientific publication bibliometric database, has become a yardstick in many Chinese institutions of learning, where SCI papers mean not only promotions but also hefty monetary rewards.
For example, at Jinggangshan University one author of the problem papers had raked in 32,000 yuan (US$4,700), although the fee for publication in the journal is said to be more than the rewards, for his Acta Crystallographica Section E papers. He would have become an associate professor had he not lost his job.
Moreover, some Chinese scientists have found ways to crack the system. Acta Crystallographica Section E is one of the outlets flooded with Chinese papers. For example, one chemistry professor at Heilongjiang University has published 297 papers in it in the last five years.
Between 2001 and early 2009, Chinese from over 500 universities and research institutes published a total of 9,024 papers, with 24 institutions publishing over 100 papers each. Even someone who knows nothing about crystallography could have his or her papers published in the journal. One person dismissed from Jinggangshan University was an engineer.
It turns out that Acta Crystallographica Section E is merely a database of crystal structures in which publications are usually one-page long and the review process is not that rigorous. In fact, one does not need to understand English to write such a paper as the paper is generated automatically after the author provides such information as the name of the new structure and related experimental data.
While it may be an exaggeration to claim that all these papers published in journals like Acta Crystallographica Section E are useless, their contributions to science and knowledge are surely not substantial. While there are no statistics available as to how many Chinese SCI papers have been published in similar journals of low impact or no impact, they have become part of China’s “great leap forward” in scientific publications.
Indeed, in 2008, mainland Chinese scientists published 95,500 SCI papers, thus putting China fourth in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. But when the paper bubble bursts, which will happen sooner or later, one may find that the real situation of scientific research in China is not that rosy.
(Cong Cao is a senior research associate with the Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce at the State University of New York. He received his PhD in sociology from Columbia University in 1997 and has worked at the University of Oregon and the National University of Singapore. Dr. Cao is interested in the social studies of science and technology with a focus on China. ©Copyright Cong Cao.)