China has a flourishing academic black market involving scientists, agencies and journal editors, according to a report published in a leading international science journal.
The report in Science magazine, based on a five-month investigation by a team of reporters, reveals myriad questionable practices, including paying for author slots on papers written by other scientists and buying papers from online brokers.
Looking into 27 agencies that trade in SCI papers - papers in journals indexed by Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index (SCI) - the investigation found authorship fees ranging from US$1,600 to US$26,300.
SCI papers - especially those published in journals with a high impact factor - are so critical to getting promotions in China that researchers are willing to shell out for them, says the report's lead author Mara Hvistendahl, a contributing editor with Science who has been based in Shanghai for seven years.
"In the US, there is pressure to publish research papers for a scientist, but not anything on the scale of what scientists in China experience," Hvistendahl said in a telephone interview from Shanghai.
China has become a powerhouse in scientific publishing. The number of papers originating in China on SCI Expanded - an information database of more than 8,500 of the world's leading scientific and technical journals - skyrocketed from 41,417 in 2002 to 193,733 in 2012, ranking it second in the world, after the US, the Science report says.
But corrupt practices taint that achievement. "[Some scientists] are publishing better and better papers and getting into top-notch journals, but in the end they don't even know what their papers say," says Cao Zexian, a physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Beijing, in the report. "They spend a lot of money hiring researchers to write them."
The investigation began with a tip-off that a sales agent for a Chinese company called Wanfang Huizhi was selling authorships for a forthcoming scientific paper to be published in Elsevier's International Journal of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. According to the report, the company was selling the title of co-first author for the paper, which described a potential strategy for curbing drug resistance in cancer cells, for 90,000 yuan (US$14,800).
Adding two names - co-first author and co-corresponding author - would cost US$26,300, with a deposit due on acceptance, and the rest payable on publication. This led to an investigation whereby Science reporters posed as graduate students and scientists. They contacted selected agencies by phone or via the Chinese messaging system QQ, inquiring about buying authorship on a paper or paying the company to write a paper.
"We investigated a lot of these agencies undercover because there was no other way to confirm that these companies were doing what they were doing," says Hvistendahl. "But after we were done with our reporting, we went back to the people and showed them what we found and asked them for their reaction.
"We were careful not to make any allegations that weren't unfounded."
Only five of the 27 companies contacted refused to write papers or broker authorship.
"It was pretty easy to confirm that there were companies offering papers for sale. The more difficult thing was actually confirming that they did make these sales and the papers did actually get published, so they weren't tricking the scientists," says Hvistendahl.
As it turns out, the cancer paper which Wanfang Huizhi was selling authorship for did get published - with late changes to the names of the author list. A second first author was added, among other names.
Interviews with the paper's authors and with the journal's editors found that all denied having knowledge of anyone paying for authorship.
When contacted by the Post, the corresponding author of the cancer paper, Wang Xuedong, of the Fifth People's Hospital of Wuxi and the Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing Medical University in Wuxi, responded in an e-mail in Putonghua that he had engaged Wanfang Huizhi's research paper editing services previously, but denied being involved in selling authorships or receiving the purported 90,000 yuan.
"The arrangement and addition of authors to the paper is based on each individual's contribution to the paper. It is up to the research team to decide on the names; we don't have to consult the opinions of unrelated people," Wang said.
The Wanfang Huizhi website, which was accessible before the investigation report was published, has ceased operating.
The website had listed the company's other services, such as arranging conferences and producing tailor-made coins and commemorative stamps.
Asked if this black market existed elsewhere in the world, Hvistendhal says it probably does in "any place you'd receive incentives for a promotion, or there's a reward structure in place where scientists are under enormous pressure to publish".
She says she spoke to a journal editor in India who had heard of a similar black market there. But he did not have the details to confirm that companies are actually getting papers into international journals.
Mainland companies are much more brazen. "In China, it's very much all in the open," says Hvistendahl.
"If you want to search Baidu for paper selling agencies, you don't search for 'paper selling', just search 'how do I publish a paper', and you come up with all these companies."