How Chinese “science paper mills” threaten research progress

An employee inspects a chip at the semiconductor chip company in Suqian, Jiangsu province, China February 28, 2023. (China Daily via REUTERS) (CHINA DAILY/)

The Chinese researchers have become in the last two decades among the most prolific authors of scientific articles in the world. In 2021, according to the American Institute of Scientific InformationChina reached the 23% of world production of articles, ranking just behind the United States. At the same time, last year the Asian country surpassed the US for the first time in the number of most cited articles.

But those data could be distorted. inflated by “scientific article factories” that Chinese researchers use to significantly improve fraudulent the numbers of its production, according to an extensive investigation of the newspaper Financial Times.

“Experts say that the impressive Chinese production hides systemic inefficiencies and a background of fraudulent investigation and of low quality. Academics complain about the crushing pressure that is exerted on them so that they publish in order to obtain prized positions in the research universities”, writes the influential British newspaper.

According to him Financial Timesscientific publishers around the world are increasingly alarmed by the scale of fraud.

An investigation carried out last year by the Joint Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope) concluded: “The submission of suspected false research papers is on the rise and threatens to overwhelm the editorial processes of a significant number of journals.”

A researcher looks at the confocal image on a screen showing the stem cell nucleus in the Aging and Regeneration Laboratory of the Institute of Stem Cells and Regeneration of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing (REUTERS/Tingshu Wang)
A researcher looks at the confocal image on a screen showing stem cell nuclei in the Aging and Regeneration Laboratory of the Institute of Stem Cells and Regeneration of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing (REUTERS/Tingshu Wang) (TINGSHU WANG /)

Cope describes the “factories of scientific articles” as “unofficial and potentially illegal for-profit organizations that produce and sell fraudulent manuscripts that appear to be authentic research”.

Estimates of the extent of false scientific production vary enormously, from the 2% to 20% or more of published articles. There is general agreement that China is one of the world’s worst offendersAlthough Cope points out that the paper mills are “by no means limited to China.”

The problem is that no publisher, not even the most vigilant, has the ability to weed out all the scams. Retractions are rare and can take years. In the meantime, scientists can build on the results of a fake item. In the biomedical field, this is all the more worrying since the objective of much research is the development of treatments for serious diseases.

An extended practice

In China, the practice is so widespread that on Chinese e-commerce sites like Taobao online intermediaries selling commissioned research are proliferating. Recently, a broker who advertised on Taobao charged his clients 800 dollars for submitting an article to a midlevel national medical journal, wrote the FT.

Beijing has introduced sanctions against the use of “article factories”, including a ban on infringing researchers from applying for public funding. But the limited application of the law means that this practice continues to be common.

An employee works at a research and development laboratory in Shanghai, China, on July 21, 2022. (REUTERS/Aly Song)
An employee works in a research and development laboratory in Shanghai, China, on July 21, 2022. (REUTERS/Aly Song) (ALY SONG/)

The proliferation of dubious research that has accompanied China’s emergence as a scientific and technological power has also drawn the attention of a number of independent academics who monitor the production of the country.

He Financial Times cited the case of david bimlera psychologist at Massey University in New Zealand who identified 150 biomedical articles from the Jilin University using the same data sets and concluded that the institution had a “internal item factory.”

Elisabeth Bika Californian microbiologist who highlights cases of bad science, was part of a team that examined 20,000 biomedical articles from authors around the world and found that 800 had cases of “inappropriately duplicated images””.

“Items from China were more than average likely to contain problematic images,” he told the FT.

One of the reasons Chinese researchers would turn more often to “article mills” is the enormous pressure they face to publish. It is that the more jobs they publish, the more possibilities they have to access public resources and achieve better positions. The Institute for Scientific Information estimates that in China there are more than 2 million researchers that compete for funds from central and local governments.

“To survive in the Chinese academic world, we have to meet many key performance indicators. That is why when we publish, we focus more on quantity than quality, ”he told the FT a physics professor at a prominent Beijing university. “When potential employers look at our resumes, it’s much easier for them to judge the quantity of our results over the quality of the research.”

Mistrust and risks to scientific cooperation

The scrutiny of bogus Chinese investigations has exacerbated mistrust between Western and Chinese academic institutions. To this is added the deterioration of geopolitical relations and accusations that Chinese researchers take advantage of their stay in foreign laboratories to scientific espionage and technological and property theft intellectual.

Xi Jinping at Imperial College London in 2015
The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne (left), and the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, visit the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester with Nobel Prize winners Sir Kostya Novaselov and Sir Andre Geim on October 23, 2015 in Manchester, England. (Richard Stonehouse – WPA Pool/Getty Images) (Richard Stonehouse/)

So as countries that “have contributed greatly to the growth of collaborative science” slow their engagement, the outlook for Chinese research output “they are much more uncertain” that in the recent past, said james wilsdonResearch Policy Professor at University College London.

Still, scientists say both Western and Chinese research will lose out due to a loss of mutual trust.

For many laboratories around the world, Chinese researchers are a crucial source of manpower to participate in large-scale experiments. Western researchers benefit from access to cheap and well-trained Chinese doctoral students who can help reinforce their findings by conducting experiments.

“American or British scientists often have groundbreaking ideas and do really innovative research,” he summed up. FT the physics professor from Beijing. “The Chinese learn fast. They help find evidence and make the framework more robust.”

That’s why science advocates in the United States are working so that the collaboration with China doesn’t fall apart completely. “Our scientific culture is a beacon for Chinese scientists,” he said. Sudip Parikh, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “They help enrich our economy and our laboratories. These intellectual relationships matter and it is important that we do not lose sight of the benefits of international collaboration.”

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