Rampant fraud threatens China's ascent

Faked research poses a threat to President Hu Jintaos vow to make China a research superpower
Last Updated 10 October 2010, 16:21 IST

No one disputes Zhang Wuben’s talents as a salesman. Through television shows, DVDs and a best-selling book, he convinced millions of people that raw eggplant and immense quantities of mung beans could cure lupus, diabetes, depression and cancer.

For $450, seriously-ill patients could buy a 10-minute consultation and a prescription — except Zhang, one of the most popular practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, was booked through 2012.

But when the price of mung beans skyrocketed this spring, Chinese journalists began digging deeper. They learned that contrary to his claims, Zhang, 47, was not from a long line of doctors (his father was a weaver). Nor did he earn a degree from Beijing Medical University (his only formal education, it turned out, was the correspondence course he took after losing his job at a textile mill).

The exposure of Zhang’s faked credentials provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing over what many scholars and Chinese complain are the dishonest practices that permeate society, including students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who promote fake or unoriginal research, and dairy companies that sell poisoned milk to infants.

The most recent string of revelations has been bracing. After a plane crash in August killed 42 people in northeast China, officials discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories. Then there was the padded resume of Tang Jun, the millionaire former head of Microsoft China and something of a national hero, who falsely claimed to have received a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology.

Few countries are immune to high profile frauds. Illegal doping in sports and malfeasance on Wall Street are running US scandals. But in China, fakery in one area in particular — education and scientific research — is pervasive enough that many here worry it could make it harder for the country to climb the next rung on the economic ladder.

Lack of integrity
China devotes significant resources to building a world-class education system and pioneering research in competitive industries and sciences, and it has had notable successes in network computing, clean energy and military technology. But a lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say.

Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation —has produced a deluge of plagiarised or fabricated research. In December, a British journal that specialises in crystal formations announced that it was withdrawing more than 70 papers by Chinese authors whose research was of questionable originality or rigor.

In an editorial published earlier this year, ‘The Lancet’, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarised research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a ‘research superpower’ by 2020.

Last month a collection of scientific journals published by Zhejiang University in Hangzhou reignited the firestorm by publicising results from a 20-month experiment with software that detects plagiarism. The software, called CrossCheck, rejected nearly a third of all submissions on suspicion that the content was pirated from previously published research. In some cases, more than 80 per cent of a paper’s content was deemed unoriginal.

The journals’ editor, Zhang Yuehong, emphasised that not all the flawed papers originated in China, although she declined to reveal the breakdown of submissions.
“Some were from South Korea, India and Iran,” she said.

The journals, which specialise in medicine, physics, engineering and computer science, were the first in China to use the software. For the moment they are the only ones to do so, she said.

Her findings are not surprising if one considers the results of a recent government study in which a third of the 6,000 scientists at six of the nation’s top institutions admitted they had engaged in plagiarism or the outright fabrication of research data. In another study of 32,000 scientists last summer by the China Association for Science and Technology, more than 55 per cent said they knew someone guilty of academic fraud.

Fang Shimin, a muckraking writer who has become a well known advocate for academic integrity, said the problem started with the state-run university system, where politically appointed bureaucrats have little expertise in the fields they oversee. Because competition for grants, housing perks and career advancement is so intense, officials base their decisions on the number of papers published.

“Even fake papers count because nobody actually reads them,” said Fang, who is more widely known by his pen name, Fang Zhouzi, and whose website, New Threads, has exposed more than 900 instances of fakery, some involving university presidents and nationally lionised researchers.

When plagiarism is exposed, colleagues and school leaders often close ranks around the accused.

The result is that plagiarisers often go unpunished, which only encourages more of the same, said Zeng Guoping, director of the Institute of Science Technology and Society at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which helped run the survey of 6,000 academics.

He cited the case of Chen Jin, a computer scientist who was once celebrated for having invented a sophisticated microprocessor but who, it turned out, had taken a chip made by Motorola, scratched out its name, and claimed it as his own. The exposure in 2006 was an embarrassment for the scientific establishment that backed him.

But even though Chen lost his university post, he was never prosecuted.

‘Hired’gun’ test taker
The problem is not confined to the realm of science. Many educators say the culture of cheating takes root in high school, where the competition for slots in the country’s best colleges is unrelenting and high marks on standardised tests are the most important criterion for admission. Ghost-written essays and test questions can be bought. So, too, can a ‘hired’gun’ test taker who will assume the student’s identity for the gruelling two-day college entrance exam.

Then there are the gadgets — wristwatches and pens embedded with tiny cameras — that transmit signals to collaborators on the outside who then relay back the correct answers. Students spent $150 million last year on internet essays and high-tech subterfuge, a five-fold increase over 2007, according to a Wuhan University study, which identified 800 websites offering such illicit services.

Academic deceit is not limited to high school students.

Ask any Chinese student about academic skullduggery and the response is startlingly nonchalant. Lu Xiaoda, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarise essays from one another.

The Chinese government has vowed to address the problem. Editorials in the state-run media frequently condemn plagiarism and, last month, Liu Dongdong, a Politburo member who oversees Chinese publications, vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eagre to inflate their publishing credentials.

Fang Shimin and another crusading journalist, Fang Xuanchang, have heard the vows and threats before. In 2004 and again in 2006, the ministry of education announced antifraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

(Published 10 October 2010, 16:21 IST)

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