China Cracks Down On Fake Science

Andrew Follett | Energy and Science Reporter

China’s government started cracking down on fraudulent scientific journal articles Tuesday in the wake of a pay-t0-publish scandal among researchers.

China will suspend research grants to any scientists caught paying online companies for fake, positive peer reviews.

The crack down was motivated after the scientific journal Tumor Biology issued a mass retraction of 107 Chinese cancer studies in April. The journal found these studies were peer-reviewed by fake researchers who either didn’t exist or had been picked by the reviewee. China’s science ministry funded 17 of the retracted studies.

“If you shut one [website] down, they  will just open three others,”  Yang Wei, head of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), told Nature. “Our goal is to find the person behind them. You can go online and see lots of them. Different fields are served by different companies.”

The NSFC found and canceled more than 30 of its pending grant applications based on the retracted papers.

Wei notes that many scientists at the start of their careers pay for positive reviews so they can get their foot in the door. After their first publication, the study’s author has enough standing to apply for more lucrative grants. This means there’s big money to be made in selling fake peer reviews.

“It is not just the problem of the author, it is a societal problem,” Jiang Wenlai, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told Nature. “Just punishing the author will not eradicate the problem.”

Scientists are under huge financial pressure to publish research as their career evaluations look at how frequently they get work published in a journal. This gives them a huge incentive to tweak, or outright fake, results just so they can look productive and keep their jobs or grants. A growing number of scientists have noticed the wave of retractions, especially among social scientists.

Scientific fraud isn’t limited to China, however.

An experiment published in March found dozens of U.S. scientific journals hired a fake scientist to editorial positions, and some even took cash payments in exchange for publishing scientific papers.

Forty of the the 48 journals examined by researchers offered an editorial position to the fake scientist whose last name actually translated from Polish to mean “Fraud.” Even after journals were told the fake scientist didn’t exist, her name continued to appear on the editorial board of 11 journals.

The U.S. National Science Foundation estimates such misconduct costs more than $110 million every year.

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