Ministry tackles research integrity after NTU scandal

Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology has said it will set up an Office of Research Integrity to hold researchers to ethical academic standards in the wake of a major academic fraud scandal at the country’s top institution, National Taiwan University or NTU, which has severely damaged its research reputation.

The office will create a database of different types of breaches of academic standards, including fraud and plagiarism, “to serve as a reference for case reviews,” Science and Technology Minister Chen Liang-gee said recently.

The new office would “collect information on research integrity from other countries, including case scenarios and treatment solutions, and publicise them from research project heads,” Chen said.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education also announced an amendment to its regulations, forcing academics accused of academic fraud to relinquish honorary and monetary awards granted by the ministry, and return funds already granted. The ministry regularly issues Academic Awards, comprising an honorary certificate and stipends of TW$600,000 (US$20,000) to academics considered outstanding in their fields.

Nicole Lee, the education ministry’s director of the department of higher education, said on 25 March the amendment is in response to a recent academic fraud scandal involving NTU professor Kuo Min-liang who was also vice-president of Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan, and NTU President Yang Pan-chyr, who was later cleared of wrongdoing.

‘Misleading images’

Earlier this year an internal NTU investigation and a separate investigation constituting members from outside the institution found that Kuo’s research team had presented “misleading images” in at least six papers published in international peer-reviewed journals.

The NTU investigation committee investigated 17 dissertations, including two withdrawn papers on cancer research submitted by Kuo’s team to Nature Cell Biology last year and the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2008. The papers had been flagged as “problematic” by users on PubPeer, a website for the discussion and peer review of published research.

The committee said in its findings last month Kuo “purposely” added the questionable images to the papers, and had not provided proper guidance and supervision to his teams.

Academics say young professors churn out papers in order to be promoted and some senior professors are co-authors in name only and do not supervise the research or check the quality of the papers. In 2014, former minister of education Chiang Wei-ling resigned after he was accused of plagiarism for a paper he co-authored with a student.

On 24 February the committee announced disciplinary measures against several professors including the dismissal of Kuo – who had already resigned in November as vice-president of Kaohsiung Medical University and as a professor at NTU though he still carried out teaching duties at NTU – and Chang Cheng-chi, an NTU professor of dentistry, for their research ethics violations.

As the papers investigated were among those Kuo submitted for the government’s Academic Award, the ministry committee overseeing the case said it would revoke the award, made in 2008, and Kuo’s stipend.

NTU president cleared

However, the six-person committee in late February unanimously cleared NTU President Yang, who had been named a co-author in some of the papers.

The committee said the sections in the published papers in which Yang was involved had “no academic ethics violations”. The committee also said it would not revoke Yang’s title or his 2002 Academic Award, as the papers were not submitted for consideration for the National Chair Professorship or the ministry’s Award.

The decisions prompted some criticism from fellow academics and sparked an online petition signed by thousands, including professors, doctors and researchers, demanding Yang’s resignation, as he was responsible as the head of the university.

Despite calls by teachers' unions and some academics for Yang to step down – he has been president of NTU since 2013 – Yang held on before announcing recently he would resign after his current term as NTU president expires in June. Yang’s second term had been approved by the university in May 2016.

“To protect the school from criticism and restore harmony in the university system, I will tender my resignation after my term ends in June,” he said on 18 March, adding his decision did not mean he assumed administrative responsibility, but rather was to defend the university’s reputation.

Yang was quoted by local media as saying that even though the independent investigation committee convened by NTU had “proven his innocence”, he did not want allegations of academic misconduct to continue to be directed at the university.