Research fraud rampant in China

A Chinese study found that 60 percent of PhD candidates admitted to plagiarism, bribery.

The stunning revelation of fraud and fakery in the heart of China's R&D industry has vindicated a feisty set of scholars who are gaining traction in exposing a culture of fraud and corruption in China's colleges.

Just days ago authorities revealed that the Hanxin digital signal chip, a so-called "Chinese chip" designed to enhance home-grown computer technology, is not an original. Chen Jin, "father of the Chinese chip," evidently used a product from a foreign firm to win a lucrative bid in 2003 - ironically, to spearhead a much publicized patriotic national drive to create a Chinese super microchip.

For scientists and researchers in China, the Chen case, while embarrassing, is all too typical. Other fraud cases are coming to light that reveal a deeply ingrained habit of plagiarism, falsification, and corruption - widely recognized, but not widely policed or punished in Chinese universities.

It also arrives in the midst of growing concerns about the nature and character of native firms, of exports, and of the contributions to technology and scholarship by China around the world. What has been an irritating and somewhat comical issue about pirated DVDs - has now morphed into a fuller-scale complaint about high-tech intellectual property rights violations. The American Chamber of Commerce Tuesday issues a tough "white paper" on piracy violations and practices in China.

Last week nearly 120 Chinese scientists living in the US wrote an open letter of concern to Ministry of Science officials, arguing that standards of research in China have dipped to such lows, that the country's reputation is on the line. Ironically, the desire to boost China's research reputation, and the pressure that puts on scientists, is partly fueling the corner-cutting.

A recent Ministry of Science study of 180 PhD candidates in China found that 60 percent admitted plagiarizing, and the same percentage admitted paying bribes to get their work published.

"The actual situation might be worse than that, particularly in the area of social sciences," says Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist who splits his time between California and Beijing, and runs a website that has detailed more than 500 cases of serious academic fraud in China.

Mr. Fang is one of the feistiest whistle-blowers - wellknown and also feared in Chinese academic circles. Fang, whose real name is Fang Shi-min, is an Old Testament angel of vengeance when it comes to lying and cheating, and his work has led to a number of high-level fraud exposures and dismissals in the academic world.

His investigations have exposed:

• Yang Jingan of Hefei Industry University, who was expelled from the communist party after Fang disclosed plagiarized essays from foreign academic journals;

• Liu Hui, dean of the Medical School of Tsinghua University, who was dismissed after Fang found that Liu falsely claimed to have been director of medical research at New York University;

• Yang Jie, dean of biology at Tongji University in Shanghai, who was dismissed after admitting to having a falsified résumé.

In the computer chip case, it was an assistant that exposed Mr. Chen. Evidently fearful of being implicated in what was proving a fruitless mission, the assistant posted on Jan. 17 an exposé on the Xinhua bulletin board.

On May 12, Shanghai's Jiaotong University, where Chen is based, stated the Hanxin, or "Chinese heart chip," was a DSP 56800E, by Motorola. The University promptly fired Chen. The chip on display in Shanghai at the festive 2003 chip launch, attended by top officials, was a painted piece of metal, it was revealed.

Yet Fang and other fraud-busters say such public disgracings are the exception, not the rule. They argue that the culture of plagiarism continues mainly because corruption runs to the upper levels of the institutions of higher learning, and efforts to expose it are throttled.

Take the case of Wei Yuquan. Mr. Wei is vice president of Sichuan University as well as an immunologist and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. A recent article by Mr. Wei describing an experiment to treat cancer cells was billed as groundbreaking. Yet when Si Lu Sheng, a relatively obscure older pathologist from central China, reviewed the article, something stuck in his craw. Mr. Si asked Mr. Wei for simple verification. But Wei refused to present basic evidence, discuss methods, or even present receipts for lab purchases of special white mice. Yet on the basis of the article, Wei received a $60,000 grant from China's National Life Science and Nature fund - big money for professors here, some of whom make only $350 a month.

Si was flabbergasted. Nearing retirement, and with little to lose, he started a small campaign to expose what he felt was cheating, he told the Monitor.

Wei visited Si several times to talk him out of his campaign. Si was offered a lucrative research project. But Si wasn't biting. So, a different kind of pressure was exerted - Si got harassing phone calls and his wife was pressured at her job. In the end, the university backed its vice president. But no substantive evidence of the veracity of the medical test has been forthcoming.

"I got involved to warn younger scholars of the harm of falsifying research," Si says. "The faking is obvious, everyone knows it. But no one dares to talk about it, since the university president declared the work was acceptable. When the senior leaders at the university ordered the discussion to be closed, it was."

So Si sent a set of letters and the case to Fang's website.

A Sichuan University spokesman contacted Monday said that, "There is no clear line between academic corruption and academic disputes. People who are fighting against corruption are not reliable and do so to make a name. We should let the leaders of the university decide."

"What we need is to actually punish those who commit fraud, to kick them out," says Tsinghua University engineering professor Zhou Nanyuan, who does research in the area of science fraud. "So far we only have an oral commitment to police this, from our university leaders. The problem is that many violators remain, even after they are exposed."

"The higher the position a cheater occupies, the easier for him to avoid investigation and punishment," Fang told the Monitor.

The increase in science-related fraud contributes to the exposure of corruption, since science tends to be a performance-driven discipline where verification is part of the accepted process, experts here say.

Still, Si says that serious science review mechanisms are lacking. The science magazine editors that first published the article were chosen by seniority rather than professional capability, Si says.

Party members loyal to the school have far greater say in the review process than a more knowledgeable, but less senior, figures. Since grants are state funds, few on the review boards are willing to stick their necks out and rebut serious scientific claims - especially for grant proposals that appear under titles like "national research."

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