One of the leading scientific publishing companies, Springer Nature announced in April that it would start retracting an unprecedented amount of 107 research papers published in Tumor Biology, a peer reviewed, open access journal publishing experimental and clinical cancer research. Currently, Tumor Biology has an impact factor of 2.926, putting it at the 104th out of 213 oncology journals.

A spokesperson from Springer revealed that all the research papers were published by researchers in China from 2012 to 2016. The papers had been submitted under real names of the researchers but with fake email addresses. Some of these authors were from top universities such as China Medical University, Fudan University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Is China the world factory of fabricated science research?

In a meeting between Springer and the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST) held over the latest spectacle, Springer was accused of targeting Chinese authors.

Peter Butler, editorial director at Springer for cell biology and biochemistry emphasised their move was not aimed at any particular country. “Scholars anywhere have pressure in publishing articles, this is not a sole phenomenon in China, it’s a global issue,” he said.

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Wang Chunfa, party secretary of CAST, commented Springer should be more stringent in the quality control process prior to publishing these studies, thereby avoiding retractions at later stages. CAST reinforced the message that they are willing to collaborate with Springer to uphold the integrity in publishing research studies.

China takes the lowest spot in terms of peer-review integrity compared to the top 5 countries for scientific publishing

The US has been topping the rank of retracted papers over the years. However, in recent years, retractions from China has also seen a significant growth.

In 2015, Springer Nature performed another mass retraction of 64 research papers. The topics ranged from neurobiology, biochemistry to cancer research. Similarly, the articles were published by academics based in first-tier cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

Retraction Watch, a research integrity watchdog based in the United States reported that China had a total of 276 studies that were retracted due to fabricated peer-reviews from 2012 to 2016. On the other hand, Japan published 4,000 papers in 2016, and has not recorded a single case of retraction due to this issue.

Chinese researchers rely heavily on third-party companies that are hired to translate and submit their articles for publication. However, the convenience of outsourcing comes with a price. It does not come with quality assurance, leaving the academic papers at risk for fake peer reviews. Apart from this, papers from China are also dogged by cases of plagiarism, data falsification and non-existent data analysis methods.

Guidelines for research ethics in place, but implementation remains difficult

In China, research ethics is governed by an Ethics Committee of the Ministry of Health, which was established in 1998. However, the lack of a standardised system to monitor the individual ethics boards of thousands of institutions in China have let the rot set in. Additionally, the lack of manpower and qualified administrators have also led to poorly outlined ethic protocols for conducting academic research.

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According to a survey conducted by the Nature Publishing Group, 91 per cent of Chinese scientists agreed that institutions should put more effort in detecting, preventing and punishing unethical research behaviours.

Putting aside of the black sheep in the sector, China’s efforts in research and development (R&D) should be recognised. In 2014, China spent 1,331 billion RMB on R&D, second only to the United States. Given this robust investment, China is predicted to overtake the United States in medical research funding in the next decade. MIMS

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