CommentInsight & Opinion

Fraud in academia is killing China's Nobel dream

Zhou Zunyou says accusations against a Fudan professor show need to enforce code of conduct

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 2:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 2:19pm

Late last month, it was reported that the academic committee of Shanghai's Fudan University had finished its second investigation into the plagiarism accusations against Wang Zhengmin, a professor of otology there. Fudan stood by its previous findings that the claims of academic misconduct are untenable.

Wang is also an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a prestigious body of Chinese scientists. Since 2012, there have been accusations that he plagiarised others in his bid for membership of the academy.

Fudan University published its first investigation report last August, declaring that the publications in question involved academic "irregularities" rather than "misconduct". However, when CCTV's exposure of the scandal last month triggered a new round of media coverage, Fudan carried out its second investigation.

Despite Fudan's denial of misconduct, many academics and commentators seemed convinced otherwise. Their view was reinforced when four of the seven senior academics who had backed Wang in his bid for membership at the academy publicly urged the academy to disqualify him.

While academic misconduct also occurs in other countries, it appears rampant in scientific research in China, for at least two major reasons.

First, mainland China uses an evaluation system that emphasises the number of academic publications rather than their quality. Research grants, career advancements and other perks are generally dependent on statistics-driven standards. These standards, however, have brought adverse consequences.

Second, violators of academic integrity run little risk of being caught or punished. Few researchers work up the courage to openly expose their peers, in part because of a fear of being exposed themselves. When an academic is accused of fraud, colleagues and the head of the institution usually choose to forgive or even protect the accused.

Against the backdrop of pervasive dishonesty in academia, the Chinese writer and blogger Fang Zhouzi has established a reputation with his relentless anti-fraud campaigns. Unfortunately, his campaign against Xiao Chuanguo, a former professor of urology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, led to him being attacked by two thugs in 2010.

After being arrested, Xiao confessed to having masterminded the attack in revenge for Fang's revelations that allegedly thwarted his election to the Chinese academy. Xiao was sentenced to a short prison term, but none of the relevant institutions and authorities bothered to look into the allegations to see whether there had indeed been any academic misconduct.

Like other Chinese academic institutions, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has rules in place to ensure the credibility and trustworthiness of research conducted by its members. But most of these rules exist in name only, and nobody really puts them into practice.

This may account for the fact that a high-ranking official of the previous Ministry of Railways, Zhang Shuguang, was twice nominated for membership, in 2007 and 2009.

When standing trial for corruption last September, Zhang confessed that 23 million yuan (HK$29 million) of the bribes he took were spent on efforts to get elected to the academy, to buy votes and hire ghostwriters.

Even though he showed no signs of academic excellence, Zhang failed to be elected by just one vote in 2009. The academy has denied the allegations, but has done nothing to prove its innocence.

Academicians usually have easy access to resources and research funds for themselves and their institutions. This is why it has become an open secret that bribery allegations often surround the election of members to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Such claims don't just involve individual candidates; they can also be levelled at the institutions they work for.

According to international practice, people who investigate academic misconduct should have no conflict of interest. Since Fudan University was involved in the plagiarism scandal, its academic committee is unlikely to be an independent and impartial arbitrator in the proceedings.

Wang should resign if he wants to avoid further loss of respect and honour. The Chinese Academy of Sciences should use the scandal as an opportunity to rescue its waning reputation.

Despite having the world's largest population and the second-largest economy, China has yet to win a single Nobel Prize in natural sciences. If academic misconduct continues unchecked, the Chinese road to Nobel Prizes will be hard and long. Such a dream cannot be realised through bribery and dishonesty.

Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law



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