Research misconduct penalties extended into other areas

A raft of new punishments for research misconduct by institutions and individual researchers in China extends the penalties for those blacklisted for serious misconduct breaches outside the higher education and research area, as scientific research becomes linked to the country’s Social Credit System.

A government memorandum of understanding (MoU) on entities found to be “responsible for serious untrustworthiness in the field of scientific research” was issued last month by China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

While the MoU does not replace existing research misconduct laws, it raises the penalties for dishonesty under the Social Credit System – widely seen as a form of behavioural control – which affects trustworthiness in a wide range of areas, not just the field in which entities and individuals were found guilty. Similar national blacklists were announced last month for intellectual property violations by individuals and institutions.

Limiting activities

The stated aim of the blacklists is to limit the activities of those found to be untrustworthy. Within the research sector, state awards for science and technology can be revoked and prize money and certificates returned, with the qualification for such awards cancelled for a set period or for life. Leadership positions in academic societies and membership of such bodies could also be cancelled.

Among the 40 different restrictions outlined in the MoU are “joint disciplinary action for untrustworthiness”, allowing the records of those blacklisted in one sector to be shared outside the sector with broad range of government and private bodies that include ministries, banking and insurance groups.

“There is not one blacklist, there are hundreds, every major policy area has its own blacklist,” according to Rogier Creemers of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has researched the Social Credit System.

For institutions and research laboratories, it could, for example, lead to restrictions on importing laboratory equipment and on access to foreign exchange for other purposes.

It could even mean a slower internet connection and individuals and institutions could be restricted from opening new websites, and other internet services, making untrustworthiness information “an important consideration in review for relevant permits” under the ministry of industry and information technology, the rules state.

According to the MoU, institutions and individuals found to be “untrustworthy” in the field of scientific research could also be excluded for consideration for directorships, senior management, fund management or futures companies. This could affect scientists and institutions getting involved in start-ups or joint ventures with industry stemming from their research, including with foreign organisations.

Targeted at those already on blacklists

“The MoU is targeted at people who are already on a blacklist,” according to Jeremy Daum, a senior research fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre in Beijing.

“These blacklists, the rules for entry, for how long you stay on and how you stay off the blacklists are all designed by central government ministries,” notes Daum who runs the Chinalawtranslate blog, which closely monitors Social Credit regulations. He notes, however, that below the level of blacklists are warning lists.

“There are consequences – not just of being named and shamed – of being on a warning list or a blacklist. Generally speaking, those consequences are industry-specific,” Daum says. In the research field, for example, it could lead to heightened frequency of inspections, tighter regulatory approvals or refusal of government funding for further work in a particular area.

The MoU outlines how it bleeds into other sectors, he says. “Of course, in China there are informal ways that it could bleed into other sectors too. If you [are involved in] an academic fraud scandal, it’s going to be difficult for you to apply for a job.”

Other areas that could be affected include participation and bidding for public construction projects and some investment areas, as well as restrictions on obtaining government-provided lands, which could also affect universities’ expansion plans, including under joint agreements with overseas institutions or research bodies.

So-called ‘red lists’ also exist to reward those with “good credibility”, according to the rules. Within universities these are particularly visible in the rewards systems for research publications, particularly in prestigious foreign journals.

Serious questions raised

The MoU comes at a time when serious questions have been raised about gene-editing research conducted by He Jiankui, an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.

SUSTech was quick to disassociate itself from the research and to say that He had been on leave from the university since February – a move which some academics suggested was intended to minimise the damage to the institution under the Social Credit System.

Nonetheless, Daum notes that Social Credit would not be the only consideration. “If He truly did [the research] without the authorisation of his research institution” or the Communist Party, he could get himself in a lot more trouble than any Social Credit [System] is going to bring him,” said Daum, pointing, for example, to extra-judicial measures in China such as taking people into detention for long periods without their family knowing. Already rumours have surfaced in China that He may have been detained.

Effects on other areas of life

Concern about Social Credit affecting other areas, including under local variants as dozens of cities are piloting their own Social Credit systems, were raised after the Supreme People’s Court published lists of people who failed to carry out local court orders since 2013. These untrustworthy ‘chronic cheats’ are named, shamed and barred from using flights and fast trains. It imposed such punishments restricting travel more than nine million times between 2013 and this year.

The Social Credit System also bars perpetrators from enrolling their offspring in private schools. But the highly publicised case revealed in July of the top-scoring student from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province – who was initially refused a place at a renowned university in Beijing because of his father’s Social Credit blacklisting over a bank debt that he had failed to pay off, despite a ruling by a local court – was criticised by the Party organ, the People’s Daily, as contravening the right to education. It noted however, that this did not extend to the right to be educated in private institutions.

Daum confirmed the case existed in public records and says it probably related to enrolment in a private institution. The father has reportedly since paid off at least the debt, in order to facilitate his son’s admission, seen by some on China’s social media sites as a victory for the Social Credit System in enforcing laws and good conduct.

Daum says that “court judgement enforcement has been a problem that has plagued China for a long time”, but, “looking at the judgement defaulters blacklist, I think it overreaches. It is not necessarily putting the right penalties on people.”

The government’s plan outlined in 2014 is to roll out a nationwide Social Credit System by 2020 with the stated aim of making “trustworthy people benefit everywhere and untrustworthy people restricted everywhere”.

While it is far from setting up a national social credit score that affects all aspects of life, official media have this year pointed to a hastening of the roll-out plan that would allow cross-referencing of blacklists between major sectors, enterprises and individuals in order “to help build a reward and punishment mechanism throughout society”, according to Party documents.