In a few short years, China has metamorphosed from a middling contributor to scientific knowledge into one of the most prolific research entities on the planet. But the country's meteoric ascent to scientific prominence – widely attributed to a flawed incentive system – has given unintentional rise to a lucrative industry of academic fakery.
The Economist this weekend gave an update on the state of scientific research in China. The upshot? Science is booming, but so is its culture of fraudulent research:
As China tries to take its seat at the top table of global academia, the criminal underworld has seized on a feature in its research system: the fact that research grants and promotions are awarded on the basis of the number of articles published, not on the quality of the original research. This has fostered an industry of plagiarism, invented research and fake journals that Wuhan University estimated in 2009 was worth $150m, a fivefold increase on just two years earlier.
While China's incentive system may ultimately prove self-impeding, it's difficult to dismiss it outright; the country's purely quantitative approach has, perhaps unsurprisingly, resulted in some very impressive numbers:
Mainland Chinese researchers have published a steadily increasing share of scientific papers in journals included in the prestigious Science Citation Index (SCI—maintained by Thomson Reuters, a publisher). The number grew from a negligible share in 2001 to 9.5% in 2011, second in the world to America, according to a report published by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China. From 2002 to 2012, more than 1m Chinese papers were published in SCI journals; they ranked sixth for the number of times cited by others. Nature, a science journal, reported that in 2012 the number of papers from China in the journal’s 18 affiliated research publications rose by 35% from 2011. The journal said this “adds to the growing body of evidence that China is fast becoming a global leader in scientific publishing and scientific research”.
And yet, for several years now, the biggest question surrounding China's success has gone largely unchanged: Just how much of a threat does the country's flourishing fraud-culture pose to its newfound scientific ascendancy?
In 2010, however, Nature had also noted rising concerns about fraud in Chinese research, reporting that in one Chinese government survey, a third of more than 6,000 scientific researchers at six leading institutions admitted to plagiarism, falsification or fabrication. [Ed. Note: Compare that number to the results of a survey of 32,000 scientists, conducted by the China Association for Science and Technology, which found more than 55 percent of researchers polled knew someone guilty of academic fraud.] The details of the survey have not been publicly released, making it difficult to compare the results fairly with Western surveys, which have also found that one-third of scientists admit to dishonesty under the broadest definition, but that a far smaller percentage (2% on average) admit to having fabricated or falsified research results.