Multipronged measures to solve China's "paper mill" problem
In 2018, China surpassed the US in terms of share of research publications.1But while China accounts for 8% of the world’s scientific articles, it also contributes a whopping 24% of all retractions.2 These retractions are attributed to falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, and a relatively new type of problem: fake papers generated by “paper mills.” Paper mills are part of a highly organized yet dubious market that sells authorships, ghostwritten papers on nonexistent research, and fake research data and images to researchers. This “systemic production of falsified research”3 has become a serious problem in China.
China’s rapid science and technology progress has been driven by generous government spending. Incentives like monetary rewards for publication encourage researchers to publish large numbers of papers at the cost of quality. The offerings of paper mills can seem attractive to researchers struggling to maintain a steady flow of publications. However, new policies in China aim to do away with incentives that might motivate researchers to adopt questionable research practices.
In 2018, China introduced reforms to eliminate academic misconduct.5,6 Misconduct cases are listed in a national database; inclusion in the list could affect funding and employment and have social consequences. Going a step further, Chinese institutions are discouraging the lopsided emphasis on the number of publications, with new rules calling for universities to consider quality, quantity, overall innovation, and impact.5,7
A recent report shows that China’s action against fake-paper producers is gaining momentum.4This year, two Chinese funding bodies, the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China (NHC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), acted upon research misconduct unearthed in their investigations. For the first time, violations involving the use of material generated by paper mills were publicized—at least 23 researchers who resorted to paper mill services or who bought and sold papers were penalized. Sanctions in the form of bans on funding, loss of grants and promotions, etc., for up to seven years, were applied.
Some experts believe that these penalizations are not adequate. Xiaotian Chen, a US-based researcher who has studied research misconduct in China, argues that the measures “may still not be strong enough.”4 Another Chinese researcher, Futao Huang, agrees that the punishments for researchers using paper mills are not severe enough. Huang maintains that professional evaluation schemes, especially in hospitals, should be made more flexible to offset the pressure to publish.
More recently, however, China has taken further measures to penalize researchers found involved in fraudulent practices, including authoring fake papers produced by paper mills. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology recently announced that 119 papers were found to be definitely fraudulent in an investigation and that action was taken against 293 authors associated with these papers.8
The growing number of researchers is fueling the competition to publish and climb the professional ladder. Meanwhile, paper mills keep refining their techniques to avoid being caught. This unwholesome combination fosters fraudulent research, which contaminates the scientific record and misdirects future research. Another unfortunate outcome could be that journal editors might increasingly view submissions from Chinese researchers with mistrust. This threatens the credibility of honest and legitimate researchers.
According to Tang,2 the new regulations might be improving research integrity in China, as evidenced by increased reporting of research misconduct. China’s action against all forms of scientific misconduct, including those related to paper mills, might be paying off. However, Chen has lamented that individuals running paper mills remain untouched by the sanctions.4 There is a need to stop the rot at the root, and strict regulations directly targeting paper mills themselves remain to be seen.
- Koshikawa, N. China passes US as world’s top researcher, showing its R&D might. Nikkei Asia. https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Science/China-passes-US-as-world-s-top-researcher-showing-its-R-D-might (2020).
- Tang, L. Five ways China must cultivate research integrity. Nature 575, 589-591 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03613-1 (2019).
- Else, H., & Van Noorden, R. The fight against fake-paper factories that churn out sham science. Nature 591, 516-519 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00733-5 (2021).
- Else, H. China’s clampdown on fake-paper factories picks up speed. Nature 598, 19-20 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02587-3 (2021).
- Cyranoski, D. China introduces sweeping reforms to crack down on academic misconduct. Nature 558, 171 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05359-8 (2018).
- Cyranoski, D. China introduces ‘social’ punishments for scientific misconduct. Nature 564, 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07740-z (2018).
- Mallapaty, S. China bans cash rewards for publishing papers. Nature 579, 18 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00574-8 (2020).
- Chawla, D. S. China sanctions hundreds of researchers following fraud investigation. Chemistry World https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/china-sanctions-hundreds-of-researchers-following-fraud-investigation/4014943.article (2021).
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