Sacking of three professors raises doubts about academic integrity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2009, 12:00am

The sacking of three academics over dubious research at the prestigious Zhejiang University has escalated concerns within the research community about the credibility of mainland academics.

State media reported on Sunday associate professor He Haibo and his superior, Wu Limao, had been fired for their roles in the fake research, which purported to show that traditional Chinese medicine could be as effective as western drugs in treating heart disease.

The dean of the university's pharmaceutical sciences college, Li Lianda, would also lose his job, China News Service reported yesterday, quoting university president Yang Wei. Mr Li was co-author of the discredited paper. The school had decided not to renew his contract because of his oversight failure, the president said.

At a public forum on misconduct by academics, Peking University president Zhou Qifeng rebuked some for failing to observe basic ethics while doing research.

'The irregularities concern sporadic cases, but without checks, the irregularities would get in the way of academic advancement and this could compromise the entire research community,' Professor Zhou told the forum on Sunday.

The sackings capped a highly publicised saga that started shortly after the Lunar New Year, when bloggers and contributors to message boards began accusing Mr He, one of Mr Li's postdoctoral students, of stealing data and submitting it to a leading international journal under his own name. In his confession, Mr He said the paper was submitted with Mr Li's name on it but without his approval.

The incident follows another well-publicised case centered on the integrity of mainland researchers.

In early February, Li Jianyuan, a doctor from Shandong province, said his team at the little-known Shandong Stem Cell Engineering Research Centre had become the second in the world to clone a human embryo.

The feat was announced in a scientific journal and trumpeted by mainland media as a major breakthrough. But doubts quickly arose, as critics began to question Professor Li's academic background, in particular the status of his PhD.

Professor Li, 53, said he had never entered a PhD programme. In 1999, a letter from a so-called Nobel Medical Institute in Los Angeles asked him to submit a paper about cloning and, in exchange, said it would bestow an honorary PhD degree on him.

'I was too young and too naive to check the institute's background. So I submitted the paper. A few months later they sent me the certificate,' Professor Li said.

The organisation turned out to be a hoax set up by a traditional Chinese medicine doctor in the United States and no trace of it exists today. Professor Li admitted that the PhD reference had appeared occasionally in his early resume and papers.

'It was a mistake and I regretted it. But I have always known the difference between a real and an honorary degree and I have never used the title to help me get jobs or research funds. My experience and skill in this field speaks for itself.'

But Fang Shimin, an independent science critic based in the United States, said science had become such a highly specialised field that it required extensive professional knowledge and training.

'It is hard to believe that a person who did not receive any proper education would be able to make a breakthrough at the frontier of biology,' he said.

'People are questioning Li not only because of his inadequate education but also because of his attempt to manipulate his educational background.'