Two major research funders in China have conducted a spate of misconduct investigations, punishing at least 23 scientists for using ‘paper mills’ — businesses that produce sham manuscripts, including fake data to order.
The sanctions — which include temporary bans on applying for funding or the loss of grants and promotions — follow a policy introduced in September last year that was intended to stamp out paper mills and deal with other misconduct. The move is part of a wider clampdown on misconduct in China, where there have been multiple misconduct scandals in recent years.
Although researchers occasionally faced sanctions before 2020, this was the first time that misconduct policies included violations involving independent businesses that sell writing or data services to researchers.
The punishments are a “major step forward” for China, says Xiaotian Chen, a library and information scientist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, who has studied retractions and research misconduct in China.
However, compared with the norms in some parts of the world “they may still not be strong enough”, he says. For example, publishing fabricated or falsified data in papers funded by government grants might be considered fraud in some countries, he says, and therefore a criminal offence.
Tip of the iceberg
Researchers also say that the investigations could represent just the tip of the iceberg and question why those who run the paper mills have escaped sanctions. “Why are they allowed to continue?” asks Chen.
The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China (NHC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) have so far sanctioned at least 23 researchers who turned to third-party services that provide scientific text and data, or who bought and sold papers, according to reports published between March and September that detail the outcome of 42 investigations.
Researchers in China might turn to paper mills to buy papers or data because they need scientific publications in order to get promotions. Paper mills have been thrust into the spotlight over the past year as scientific journals have retracted hundreds of articles suspected of coming from them.
In March, Nature reported that 370 such articles had been retracted since January 2020, all from authors at Chinese hospitals; that tally is now, by Nature’s count, at least 665.
Scientists had previously been reprimanded for using paper mills, but in 2017 a major scandal rocked the Chinese scientific community. The journal Tumor Biology retracted 107 research papers because many had fabricated peer-review reports or had been churned out by paper mills.
Policy in action
As a result, China’s ministry of science and technology vowed to crack down on breaches in research integrity, and in 2018 announced sweeping reforms to tackle misconduct. Last year saw the launch of the new research-misconduct policy, which for the first time explicitly mentioned paper mills. Under the policy, serious violations of the rules must be made public.
The recent actions by several research funders suggests that the policy is being put into practice. In March and July, the NSFC published the details of 13 misconduct investigations, 6 of which involved paper mills, with one researcher reportedly paying 24,000 yuan (US$3,700) for their thesis. The remaining cases involved peer-review fraud, plagiarism and data falsification. Between June and September, the NHC reported nearly 30 other cases of misconduct, including paper-mill use.
Sanctions for researchers found to be using paper mills ranged from lectures of admonishment, to suspending all funding applications for up to seven years and opportunities for promotion for up to six years.
Futao Huang, a Chinese researcher working at Hiroshima University in Japan, agrees with Chen that the punishments doled out to researchers using paper mills are too light, and that China’s academic evaluation system needs an overhaul, particularly in hospitals.
To reduce the pressure felt by Chinese researchers to publish papers, “more flexible and diverse research-evaluation schemes should be developed,” he says.
Chen would like to see a crackdown on the paper mills themselves. “I have read reports by Chinese domestic media investigating paper mills, but have not seen any punishment any paper mill has faced,” he says.
China’s ministry of science and technology did not respond to Nature‘s request for comment.
Additional reporting by Richard Van Noorden.