20 years of retractions in China: More of them, and more misconduct

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Lei Lei

After reviewing nearly 20 years of retractions from researchers based in China, researchers came up with some somewhat unsurprising (yet still disheartening) findings: The number of retractions have increased (from zero in 1997 to more than 150 in 2016), and approximately 75% were due to some kind of misconduct. (You can read more details in the paper, published this month in Science and Engineering Ethics.) We spoke with first author Lei Lei, based in the School of Foreign Languages at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, about what he thinks can be done to improve research integrity in his country.

Retraction Watch: With “Lack of Improvement” right in the title (“Lack of Improvement in Scientific Integrity: An Analysis of WoS Retractions by Chinese Researchers (1997-2016)”), you sound disappointed with your findings.  What findings did you expect — or at least hope — to find, and what are your reactions to the results you did uncover?

Lei Lei: Before we began to work on the project, we had occasionally heard of news reports on the retraction of articles by Chinese researchers. It seemed that the issue occurred more often than before.  Since my team has been working on several projects with bibliometric methods, I thought we could investigate this issue with the methods. Thus, the results we found from the study provided scientific evidence to our hypothesis, though I was disappointed, as you mentioned, with the findings.

RW: You painted a rather grim picture of how China has “suffered from the poor ethics of its researchers.” Do you think that China is unique in these problems — i.e. is there some particular feature in the publishing habits of Chinese researchers, more than any other country, that in continuing to encourage this behavior?  

LL: No, it is not an issue that only happens in China. In fact, many studies have reported retractions from traditional scientific powerhouses such as United States and Germany to developing countries such as Iran and India.

I do not think there exists any particular feature in the publishing habits of Chinese researchers that should be responsible for the issue.

The only thing I would like to emphasise is the importance of “integrity education” in China. For example, some researchers may not be very clear of the borderline between plagiarism and proper citation. Another example is that some may not know it is not acceptable to publish their research more than once. That is why we suggest “integrity education.”

Of course, some points may be responsible for the issue.

RW: Why do you think the rate of misconduct has increased?

LL: As we described in the article, several points may be responsible for the issue in China. First, Chinese researchers are facing much of the ‘‘publish or perish’’ pressure; second, publication of articles are closely related to awards, bonuses, and promotion; third, the costs of scientific integrity are relatively low.

RW: The repeat offenders you identified — authors who commit misconduct more than once — were responsible for a little over than 1/3 the retractions you identified, and that they were generally responsible for fraud, plagiarism and fake peer review.  If their retractions were removed from the overall numbers, would the proportion have changed significantly?  In other words, is there some category of misconduct that these repeat offenders tended to use most often?

LL: Of the 24 repeat offenders, 14 committed fraud, five both fraud and plagiarism, three plagiarism, and two faked peer review.

RW: As part of your recommendations, you suggest integrity education for undergraduate and post-graduate students; many institutions around the world offer training in research integrity.  Has there been no such training in China before now? How do you suggest it be brought into, or expanded throughout, the university curriculum?  

LL: There is integrity education in China. In fact, I have a regular talk of approximately an hour for [first-year] undergraduates and postgraduates at my School each year. But I do not think the one-hour talk is enough. Yes, it is a very good idea if such education is integrated into the university curriculum. That is, the students should have a compulsory course of “scientific integrity” at both under- and post-graduate levels.

RW: Your suggestions for ways to improve scientific integrity were directed at the policy makers in China, and to journals.  Are there others who you feel have a stake in this? What advice do you have for them, after seeing your results?  

LL: Besides the policy makers and the journal administrators, the others that should be responsible for the issue are, of course, the researchers. I believe all researchers (not only those in China) should follow the two steps. First, be clear of what we can do and what we cannot do (the “integrity education” works). Second, do only what we can do (obey the rules).

To learn more about retractions from China (or anywhere else), you can search our in-progress database by country.

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