Record retractions put focus on research misconduct

The research ethics of China’s scientists has come under the spotlight after a major international publisher retracted 107 medical research papers by Chinese authors – the single largest number of retractions ever recorded – after discovering irregularities in the peer review process.

The Springer Nature publishing company said the papers were published in the journal Tumor Biology between 2012 and 2016. “After a thorough investigation we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised,” the publisher said in a 20 April statement.

“In order to clean up our scientific records, we will now start retracting these affected articles,” Springer said.

The articles were submitted with the names of real researchers, but fabricated email addresses, Peter Butler, editorial director at Springer Nature for cell biology and biochemistry, was quoted by the official China Daily as saying. "The editors thought the articles were being sent out to genuine reviewers in the discipline," he said.

"Following our investigation and communication with the real reviewers, they confirmed they did not conduct the peer review."

Some of the Chinese authors were from some of the country’s top universities including Peking University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Fudan University and China Medical University.

Record withdrawal

The latest move by Springer constitutes the single largest withdrawal of academic papers, according to the Retraction Watch website which monitors academic fraud.

Retraction Watch explains: “To submit a fake review, someone (often the author of a paper) either makes up an outside expert to review the paper, or suggests a real researcher – and in both cases, provides a fake email address that comes back to someone who will invariably give the paper a glowing review.”

“In this case, Springer, the publisher of Tumor Biology through 2016, told us that an investigation produced ‘clear evidence’ that the reviews were submitted under the names of real researchers with faked emails. Some of the authors may have used a third-party editing service, which may have supplied the reviews.”

Agencies providing fake peer reviews have boomed in China, sparking an investigation by the National Natural Science Foundation of China last year, which found a large number of such third-party agencies.

In another recent example, British publisher BioMed Central, which publishes more than 200 journal titles, in March 2015 retracted 43 papers, including 41 from China, after discovering fake peer reviews in journals on neurobiology, cancer research and biochemistry. The reviews were provided by academics in more than a dozen Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Harbin.

The non-governmental China Association for Science and Technology or CAST in Beijing, consisting of a large number of professional organisations, carried out its own investigation into peer review fraud last year by looking into the papers retracted by BioMed Central. Of the 31 Chinese authors whose papers were retracted, 29 admitted to using an agent, paying fees ranging from US$600 to more than US$5,500.

The investigation also identified five companies that helped the researchers with the fraudulent peer reviews.

China’s official media has reported that scientific and medical ghostwriting companies have been thriving for at least a decade and are often registered as biotechnology companies. Science Citation Index or SCI journals are important for medical and research scientists’ promotions and are used in ranking universities, hospitals and faculties in China.

China’s response

Wang Chunfa, executive secretary of CAST, expressed deep concern over the retraction, which came just days after he met in Beijing with Arnout Jacobs, the head of Springer Nature for Greater China. He was keen to emphasise that the investigation by Springer was not targeted specifically at China.

In that meeting, he told Jacobs such problems would decrease, as China is reforming its management system in science and technology, according to a statement by CAST on 20 April. Verification and evaluation should be enhanced before publication, Wang said.

China’s Ministry of Education only published its first rules on ‘precaution and treatment of academic misconduct in colleges and universities’ last year, with many saying they were long overdue. The ministry rules came into force on 1 September 2016, stating that those guilty of academic misconduct may face a published notice of criticism, termination of research projects, recalling of awards and honorary titles, termination and other measures.

Colleges and universities may also give warnings, record demerits and demote or dismiss a faculty member. When academic misconduct is directly related to a degree programme, the university must suspend or not award the degree, the ministry said.

Universities that allow academic misconduct may face the termination of benefits derived from such, as well as investigation by the ministry. In such cases, the president of the college or university will be held responsible, the ministry said.

The ministry rules define six types of misconduct including plagiarism, fraud, falsification, inappropriate authorship, providing false information and dealing in papers.