THE LANCET, Volume 375, Issue 9709, Page 94, 9 January 2010
On Dec 19, 2009, editors at Acta Crystallographica Section Ealerted the scientific community to a disgraceful pattern of fraud involving papers they had published in 2007. At least 70 false crystal structures were reported—mainly from two groups led by Hua Zhong and Tao Liu, both at Jinggangshan University, Jian, China. All authors have now agreed to retraction of 41 papers published by Zhong and 29 by Liu. It is rather surprising that wrongdoing on such a scale evaded detection during peer review and, considering that crystal structures are deposited in public databases upon publication, that the truth has been uncovered so slowly.
In China, the government controls almost all funding for research. As in other countries, to gain funding researchers need to publish as many papers in high impact journals as possible. According to Science Citation Index and other resources, Chinese authors published 271 000 papers in 2008, roughly 11·5% of the world's total. This incident is not the first time that scientific fraud has occurred in China. Regulations to monitor state-funded research projects were announced in 2006 by the Ministry of Science and Technology in response to six high-profile cases of scientific misconduct. A new circular was issued on March 19, 2009, aimed at preventing misconduct in higher education institutions—punishment for breaching the new rules could involve warnings, dismissal, or legal action. Research programmes could be suspended or terminated, funding could be withdrawn, or awards and honours revoked.
Such extensive fraud is disappointing—not only does it indicate a substantial waste of research time and money, but it is likely that, whatever punishments do result, damage to the reputations of the researchers, institutions, and journal concerned is likely to be disproportionately great. Clearly, China's Government needs to take this episode as a cue to reinvigorate standards for teaching research ethics and for the conduct of research itself, as well as establishing robust and transparent procedures for handling allegations of scientific misconduct to prevent further instances of fraud.
For Hu Jintao's goal of China becoming a research superpower by 2020 to be credible, China must assume stronger leadership in scientific integrity.