The social values and politics behind science publishing

There are some unique challenges faced by Chinese academics when they attempt to publish in Western journals which I have gleaned from years correcting English in entomology papers. In a recent presentation I outlined the main ones and, in some cases, gave suggestions for how to get around them.

Understanding the context – the social values and politics – around science and science publishing for Chinese academics is vital. The following case studies illustrate the common problems.

Case 1: A Chinese scientist receives several peer reviews back via the ‘editor’. One reviewer finds the paper submitted acceptable, but a second reviewer notes that there are six very important references missing that must be added. All of these new references are by this second reviewer and are remote from the topic of the paper.

This is not a real editor but a secretary who is shuffling paper back and forth. A real editor would have recognised that the second reviewer’s ‘must add’ unrelated references are an attempt to increase the reviewer’s scientific impact, and would place that ‘reviewer’ on a blacklist never to be used again, and would share this list with fellow editors.

To address this, journal editors should carefully check that all references are cited in the text and all text citations appear in the references.

A similar problem exists if a journal editor asks an author to include more references to their journal, in order to boost the ‘impact factor’ of the journal – also a serious violation.

Case 2: A paper by all-Chinese authors is English perfect and could easily have been written by a native speaker. The authors submit it to a journal under a major European publisher and immediately get back the message that it will first need to be sent out for correction by a native English speaker – and the publisher offers that service for a fee.

I recommend they add a few blank pages at the end to change the character count and re-submit it in a week.

The publisher replies that the paper is now much better and will be sent out for peer review. But it is exactly the same paper! Detecting all Asian authors in the author line, the publisher automatically tries to get money for English revision.

However, this gets worse. Chinese authors recognise this likelihood of being rejected or extorted and they in turn ask a native English-speaking colleague to help with the English and they will add his name to the author line. Unfortunately, some Westerners welcome the chance to extend their list of publications even though their contribution in English correction does not merit authorship, nor can they defend the research.

To address this, science journal publishers should never also offer English correction services. Chinese authors who pay to have their English corrected may assume that this means that the paper will therefore be accepted aside from peer review.

Case 3: Authors submit suggested peer reviewers, but cleverly provide an alternative e-mail address that will send the manuscript back to the author, not to the reviewer. These are famous cases that arose in 2015 and heavily involved some Chinese authors. There is no excuse for this fraudulent behaviour and the penalties were justified.

However, any journal that publishes in a science field should already have a large list of potential peer reviewers and only rely on author-recommended reviewers in rare cases.

One of the most valuable resources of a science journal is its resource of reviewers, formerly on file cards and now digital. This fraud by authors would never have succeeded if the journal only used an occasional author-recommended peer reviewer and relied mainly on its own listings.

Case 4: ‘How do we determine authorship?’ is a worldwide question. Authors should have made a substantial contribution to the research, should have read the paper in its entirety, should be able to sign off on the validity of the research and should be willing to defend the honesty of their portion of the research.

As long ago as 1986, the Sigma Xi research society publication Honor in Science proposed a simple procedure for clearly indicating who did what. Simply spell out what each author contributed as ‘attributions’ as in “Smith took the data, Jones analysed it and Brown fed the animals”.

It is taking a long time to adopt this, particularly because ‘Mr Big’ who got the huge grant may rarely step into the lab where his co-workers do the real work but will have his name first on every paper in order to get the net grant.

The common statement “all authors contributed equally to this paper” is almost never correct. Some classification schemes have been proposed, but research is often far more complicated. Spelling out what each author did is clear and simple.

But ‘honorary authorship’ is a problem unique to Asian countries with a Confucian heritage. One graduate student boldly stated: “I will always include my professor as co-author in everything I write!”

I understand the Confucian respect for teachers and indeed we could only arrive at the point of independent research through what we have learned under our prior teachers. While studying under a professor for masters or doctoral work, co-authorship is most reasonable.

High pressure to publish era

But today, some professors are embarrassed to find their name on a newly published paper they have never seen before, authored by a former student. And today, some professors in this new high-pressure-to-publish era have told their students to always include them on all future research papers to inflate the professor’s scientific impact.

This is wrong. A professor who has not participated in the research must not be given credit; they cannot defend the paper. A journal requiring that attributions (author contributions) be spelled out will go far to solve that problem.

Case 5: The pressure for authorship is worldwide and small actors attempt to extort major authorship. A researcher revising an insect group requests a loan of museum specimens, but the museum curator will only send the insects if listed as first author on the paper.

Another researcher develops a big database to research one question; when asked by a second researcher for use of the database to research a second question, the first researcher demands first authorship.

Again, if a journal requires author attribution, this will clear up some of this problem.

Case 6: Indirect citation can cause misinterpretation of older research conclusions. Studies have been done that show that researchers often do not directly read the historical papers that they cite, but merely quote the small segments that are cited in more modern papers or textbooks.

In “Read Before You Cite”, Simkin and Roychowdhury reveal many authors never consult the original quote. By not reading the original, we may miss limitations or ‘hedges’ that the early researcher made, as noted by Kelly Horn in “The Consequences of Citing Hedged Statements in Scientific Research Articles”.

If the original source is not available, then the citation should clearly note: “ cited in [the second source].”

Case 7: Unfortunately, politics continues to distort science. The genetics of Gregor Mendel was suppressed by Trofim Lysenko who insisted acquired traits could be passed on and this held back genetics in the Soviet Union for decades.

Today, there are attempts in the United States to subvert the teaching of evolution, the teaching and research of climate change and the enforcement of vaccination requirements.

At the international level, a paper submitted from China to a journal in Japan was immediately rejected without peer review, but when the same paper was again submitted from Pakistan, it was accepted.

Case 8: In the immediate aftermath of the He Jiankui case of gene-edited twins, an American government official proclaimed that such research would be illegal in the United States. He lied. Such research cannot be federally funded, but it would be legal with private funding.

The various governmental constitutions, statutory laws and regulations promulgated by institutions of governmental authority do indeed have a range of laws with penalties. However, ‘guidelines’ and professional codes generally do not have the force of law, although loss of membership may have implications.

Levels of laws

It is important for the science community to recognise the various levels of laws and professional codes and to speak about them with the same care and precision that they would in their research.

Case 9: Documents in English do not necessarily translate one-for-one into Chinese. Western Romance languages and Eastern languages have a unique evolution and result in far greater differences in translation.

It is common for ‘ethics’ and ‘integrity’ to be translated into lunli and cheng xin, which are legalistic terms. In other words, if a behaviour is right, it will be according to law, and if it is according to law, it will be right.

Unfortunately, as science advances, it ventures into new dilemmas that are completely unforeseen. This means that the scientist must have an internal sense of what is moral or virtuous that may not be addressed by any existing law.

This is where lesser-used terms are needed such as dao de for ‘ethics’ and zheng zhi for uprightness or integrity, both of which might contradict law.*

Case 10: On 13 December 1809 Ephriam McDowell conducted the first successful abdominal surgery and his patient lived on for many decades. On 16 July 1885 Louis Pasteur gave the first injection of a rabies vaccine that saved the life of Joseph Meister who had been bitten by a rabid dog. In 2010, Sir Robert Geoffrey Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for having earlier conducted the first in vitro fertilisation.

In each case, they had to make a decision to do something for the first time and usually with risk. Indeed, in the case of McDowell and Pasteur, by today’s standards, they would not have been allowed to proceed.

But there was no standard in those days because it was an unknown. Simply, there can be no regulations on nuclear energy or nuclear bombs when you have not yet conducted the first nuclear reaction under the ball park in Chicago.

General laws to prohibit broad areas of research to prevent instances of ‘bad science’ may also prevent advancement that can provide very valuable ‘good science’. And while the narrow criteria of science are indeed universal, the social values that define the implementation of science are not.

John Richard Schrock is editor of the Kansas School Naturalist at Emporia State University in the USA and edits the English in the Chinese systematic entomology journal Entomotaxonomia at Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Yangling, China. Having corrected English in entomology papers for over 20 years, Chinese colleagues described to him their challenges publishing in Western journals. This is a partial summary of presentations at the Future of Scholarly Communications in China and the World conference held from 25-27 April 2019 at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.

*Correspondence with Hong Kong law professor Dr Xing Lijuan provided clarification of terms.