China’s phony science industry: how ‘paper mills’ jeopardize progress

John Chesebro searches through research articles for near similar photos of cells as part of his employment as a fraud detector at biomedical publisher Spandidos. The methods employed by “paper mills” — companies paid to manufacture scientific research — have become all too known to him.

They vary from obvious duplication — photos of cell cultures on microscope slides replicated across multiple, unrelated research — to more subtle fiddling. According to Chesebro, images are often rotated “to trick you into thinking it’s different.” “You can sometimes tell where parts of an image were digitally manipulated to add or remove cells or other features to make the data look like the results predicted by the hypothesis.” He believes that he rejects 5 to 10% of publications due to false data or ethical concerns.

Sandigos, which has offices in Athens and London, accepts a huge number of articles from China, with over 90% of its production coming from Chinese authors. Independent scientists accused Sandigos of producing publications with results that recycled the same sets of data in the mid-2010s. In response to the charges, the publisher is employing a team of in-house fraud detectors to identify and retract bogus studies.

Over the last two decades, Chinese scholars have emerged as some of the world’s most prolific scientific paper publishers. According to the Institute for Scientific Information, a research analysis group based in the United States, China will create 3.7 million papers in 2021, accounting for 23% of global output and trailing the US’s 4.4 million total.

Simultaneously, China has risen in the number of times a work is cited by other authors, a metric used to assess output quality. According to Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, China surpassed the United States for the first time in the number of most cited publications last year, however, that figure was inflated by repeated references to Chinese research that first sequenced the Covid-19 viral genome.

Western capitals are concerned about the rising output. Chinese advancements in high-profile sectors like quantum technology, genomics, and space research, as well as Beijing’s surprise hypersonic missile test two years ago, have fueled speculation that China is on its way to gaining global hegemony in science and technology.

This problem is part of a broader breakdown in confidence between Western and Chinese institutions, with some colleges instituting background checks on Chinese academics due to concerns about intellectual property theft.

Experts, however, argue that China’s great productivity conceals structural inefficiencies and a dark underbelly of low-quality and dishonest research. Academics lament the heavy pressure to publish in order to acquire coveted posts at research universities.

“To survive in Chinese academia, we must meet a slew of KPIs [key performance indicators].” As a result, when we publish, we prioritize quantity above quality,” explains a physics lecturer at a prestigious Beijing institution. “When prospective employers look at our CVs, it is much easier for them to judge the quantity of our output over the quality of the research,” he continues.

The amount of fraud is causing concern among the world’s scientific publications. An examination by their joint Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope) last year found that “the submission of suspected fake research papers. is growing and threatens to overwhelm the editorial processes of a significant number of journals.”

The problem is that no publisher, no matter how diligent, can sort out all the imposters. Retractions are uncommon and can take years to complete. Meanwhile, scientists may be expanding on the findings of a phony publication. This is especially concerning in the biomedical field, where much research is aimed at developing therapies for dangerous disorders.

Bernhard Sabel, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, is one of many journal editors who have called for “rapid global action to restore the health of the scientific record and to prevent the erosion of trust in science.”

“Science and ‘true love’ have two things in common: both are infatuated by passion, and both rely on trust,” Sabel explains. “It is extremely difficult to regain trust once it has been lost.”

‘Busybodies’ and brokers

The explosion of questionable research that has accompanied China’s rise as a scientific and technical superpower has piqued the interest of a number of independent experts who are regulating the country’s output.

David Bimler, a psychologist who previously worked at Massey University in New Zealand, is one of them. He discovered 150 Jilin University biomedical publications that used the same few data sets and concluded that the university operated an internal paper mill. Jilin University was recognized as a top offender for manufacturing false research by two other specialists who spoke to the Financial Times. Jilin University did not respond to a comment request.

“They probably never imagined that busybodies would start paying attention to their papers,” Bimler argues, “because they didn’t try to hide the mass production very well.”

Paper mills, according to the publishers’ organization Cope, are “profit-oriented, unofficial, and potentially illegal organizations that produce and sell fraudulent manuscripts that appear to resemble genuine research.”

Estimates of the extent of fraudulent scientific output range widely, from 2% to 20% or more of published publications. Sabel estimates that global revenues for paper mills are at least €1 billion per year, and likely much higher. According to Sabel, there is widespread consensus that China is one of the world’s worst violators, however, Cope points out that paper mills are “by no means confined to China.”

On Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Taobao, online brokers selling written-to-order papers abound. A broker recently advertised on Taobao charged clients $800 for submission to a middle-tier domestic medical publication.

“Scientific misconduct is an organized practice and has been run as a business almost always half openly,” claims a Chinese medical researcher working in the United States. Fraudulent papers from lower-tier universities, which employ cheaper paper mills, are easier to detect, according to her. They frequently reuse the same bogus data sets, although professors at more famous universities may buy “leftover” experimental data from other researchers.

Beijing has imposed penalties for using paper mills, including excluding offenders from asking for government assistance. However, due to lax regulation, the practice continues to be widespread.

According to Chesebro, a common red flag is when authors refuse to reveal the underlying evidence that supports their argument. “I’ve heard every rationalization. Several times, researchers claimed that their computer was broken. “I’ve heard of five author deaths, as well as a dozen or so authors who left the institute and are no longer reachable,” he says.

While academics worldwide must write in order to progress in their careers, the pressure in China is increased by the enormity of competition for limited resources. According to the ISI, there are over 2 million researchers in China contending for grants from central and local governments. According to the physics lecturer, this provides an “institutionalized incentive to cheat” in order to meet citation and publication output requirements. Academics who publish in prestigious journals are given cash bonuses at several universities, albeit this practice is being increasingly frowned upon.

Cathie Martin, a botanist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, who organizes exchanges and cooperative programs with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is impressed by the Chinese researchers who collaborate in her plant science lab. But she is well aware of the pressures they are under.

“All aspects of scientific research in China are based on publications — not only the positions that you are offered but also the grade of position,” she explains. “If one of my guys is looking for a job in China, they’ll often be told, ‘You can apply to our institution if you get one more paper,’ and then they’ll tell you what level of journal you have to publish in.”

The medical field has a particularly bad reputation for creating bogus research since physicians are expected to publish in order to advance in the hospital hierarchy, leading time-crunched doctors to outsource to paper mills.

Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist in California who exposes shoddy research, was part of a team that evaluated 20,000 scientific articles from authors all around the world and discovered 800 instances of “inappropriately duplicated images.” “Papers from China had a higher-than-average chance of containing problematic images,” she explains.

Prominent scientists have also been found to do dubious studies. According to Bik, she discovered 50 articles by a well-known immunologist working in China “with varying problems ranging from small to heavily manipulated images.” According to Bik, the Chinese government determined that “he was not responsible for any of these manipulated images” after an official review. “He received a light slap on the wrist, but nothing serious.” He’s still writing.”

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