A recent string of high-profile revelations of questionable or discredited research has driven home the point that to become a global leader in science, China must overcome a festering problem of systemic fraud.

Share story

BEIJING — Having conquered world markets and challenged U.S. political and military leadership, China has set its sights on becoming a global powerhouse in a different field: scientific research. It has more laboratory scientists than any other country, outspends the entire European Union on research and development, and produces more scientific articles than any other nation except the United States.

But in its rush to dominance, China has stood out in another, less savory way. Since 2012, the country has retracted more scientific papers because of faked peer reviews than all other countries and territories put together, according to Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks and seeks to publicize retractions of research papers.

A recent string of high-profile scandals over questionable or discredited research has driven home the point in China that to become a scientific superpower, it must first overcome a festering problem of systemic fraud.

“China wants to become a global leader in science,” said Zhang Lei, a professor of applied physics at Xi’an Jiaotong University. “But how do you achieve that and still preserve the quality of science? We still haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

In April, a scientific journal retracted 107 biology research papers, the vast majority of them written by Chinese authors, after evidence emerged that they had faked glowing reviews of their articles. This summer, a Chinese gene scientist who had won celebrity status for breakthroughs once trumpeted as Nobel Prize-worthy was forced to retract his research when other scientists failed to replicate his results.

At the same time, a government investigation highlighted the existence of a thriving online black market that sells everything from positive peer reviews to entire research articles.

President Xi Jinping, whose leadership is expected to be reaffirmed at a Communist Party Congress that begins this week, has stated his goal of turning China into “a global scientific and technology power” by 2049. But the revelations have been a setback to this effort.

China has made enormous strides in science, research and technology. Worried that its economy is still too dependent on low-end manufacturing, the government is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in developing high-tech industries like semiconductors, solar panels, artificial intelligence, medical technologies and electric cars.

China has built extensive infrastructure across the country, with roads, railroads, ports and bridges that exhibit enviable engineering prowess. But it has also endured problems of piracy and poor quality that have plagued its economic rise, blemishing what has been an otherwise dramatic entry into the ranks of the world’s leading scientific nations.

Now there are worries that persistent problems of academic fraud and lax standards exposed by the recent scandals could slow China’s ascent.

Scandals over faked research results have shaken many countries, including Japan, the United States and South Korea. But fraud appears to be especially widespread in Chinese academic institutions, as seen in the large number of retracted articles and faked peer reviews.

In part, these numbers may simply reflect the enormous scale of the world’s most populous nation. But Chinese scientists also blame what they call the skewed incentives they say are embedded within their nation’s academic system.

As in the West, career advancement can often seem to be based more on the quantity of research papers published rather than the quality. However, in China, scientists there say, this obsession with numerical goal posts can reach extremes. Compounding the problem, they say, is the fact that Chinese universities and research institutes suffer from a lack of oversight, and mete out weak punishments for those who are caught cheating.

Put these together and the result is an academic system that is willing to wink at ethical lapses, they say.

“In America, if you purposely falsify data, then your career in academia is over,” Zhang said. “But in China, the cost of cheating is very low. They won’t fire you. You might not get promoted immediately, but once people forget, then you might have a chance to move up.”

Some scientists say China’s overemphasis on numerical measures of success can be seen in its almost single-minded focus on the Science Citation Index, or SCI. This index is used to assign an “impact factor” score to scientific journals, which ranks their importance in part by counting how many times their articles are cited in other papers.

Getting an article published in a high-ranking journal can lead to career promotions and monetary rewards. Many Chinese universities offer hefty research grants and salary bonuses to faculty members who get published in journals with high impact factors. In June, Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya’an awarded a group of researchers about $2 million after members got a paper published in the academic journal Cell.

One result of the SCI’s importance has been increasingly elaborate schemes for getting papers into prestigious journals. These include the use of faked peer reviews, a practice that came under strict scrutiny after retraction of the 107 biology papers last spring.

Many of those authors were clinical doctors, who in China face intense pressure to publish.