Tsinghua University says it revoked PhD after blog reveals plagiarism and misconduct

  • University made the decision a year ago but only announced it after ‘image manipulation, duplication and deceptive authorship’ was exposed in report
  • Student’s supervisor also lost his position at the Shenzhen school
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 5:42am

Tsinghua University has announced, a year after it made the decision, that it revoked a doctorate because of data manipulation and other misconduct by a student whose papers were retracted from international journals.

The prestigious university in Beijing said in a statement on Sunday that Ye Xiaoxin had been stripped of his doctorate after his misconduct was uncovered.

In some papers, Ye – whose doctorate was from the university’s Graduate School at Shenzhen in 2015 – was found to have “self-plagiarised, duplicated images and fabricated results”, the statement said, after an influential blog revealed that 11 papers he authored had been retracted.

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The university said that Ye – who began the doctoral programme in materials science and engineering in 2010 – had been the subject of an internal investigation and that his misconduct had been discovered in January last year.

It cancelled his doctorate three months later, a move that was announced within the university.

Five months on, his supervisor, Tang Guoyi, could no longer take on postgraduate students and lost his position as deputy head of the new materials department because of dereliction of duty, the university said. Tang continued to work for the university after the penalties were announced but has now retired.

The statement followed allegations on Friday by Retraction Watch – which reports on scientific papers being retracted – that a group of materials scientists in China had 11 papers retracted from journals for misconduct including “image manipulation, duplication and deceptive authorship”.

“One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Reuse of any data should be appropriately cited … The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process,” reads one retraction statement related to one of Ye’s papers published in Materials Science and Engineering C, an Elsevier title.

Tang’s name appears on all of the articles in question, according to the Retraction Watch report.

Academic fraud has frequently been in the headlines over the past decade, but researchers say investigation and penalties have been inadequate.

“Many institutions would see this as dirty laundry that they’d prefer to keep to themselves. And for many academics, this is more a matter of luck because many cases of plagiarism aren’t discovered,” said Zhu Tingshao, from the Institute of Psychology at the China Academy of Sciences.

“I don’t think Tsinghua would have made a public statement if this hadn’t been disclosed by the media,” Zhu said. “Even with this statement, we can’t tell if the people involved were really punished.”

He added that academic misconduct was rampant in China because the penalties were so low that they were not a deterrent.

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In a study of misconduct cases involving 64 academics reported by mainland media since the mid 1990s, 24 of them received no punishment at all, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And for 10 of the 24 who were not punished, there was no investigation, it said in a report last month.

A key problem at Chinese universities is that there is no system to proactively reduce academic cheating – instead, they tend to take action in response to scandals, Zhu said.

In contrast, the world’s top universities usually have a system in place to address the issue.

“Take the recent Harvard case – the university voluntarily launched an investigation,” Zhu said, referring to Harvard’s recent decision to retract 31 papers by a former laboratory director.

Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital jointly notified a number of medical journals after they found the lab of Piero Anversa, who studied cardiac stem cells, used “falsified and/or fabricated data” in its papers, Retraction Watch said in another report last week.

Anversa and his colleagues claimed they had identified stem cells that could regenerate heart tissue, which various research teams failed to reproduce, raising doubts about the results and leading to an investigation by Harvard.

Why do so many Chinese study abroad, when local universities are already among the world’s best?

While the Tsinghua scandal may dent the university’s reputation, Zhu did not expect it to have a big impact on its rankings because they are mainly based on research achievements.

Chinese universities have generally risen in the international rankings in recent years. As the nation’s best university in science, Tsinghua has gone from a global position of 48th in 2012 to 17th in the latest QS World University Rankings. Peking University, another top higher education institution in China, climbed from 44th in 2012 to 30th.

Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore lost the mantle of Asia’s top college to Tsinghua this year, the first time a Chinese institution has claimed the region’s top position in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.