Apr 24, 2017 07:25 PM

Retraction of Cancer Papers Highlights Corruption in Chinese Academia

(Paris) — A major international publisher’s decision to retract more than 100 cancer-related papers from China has rattled the country’s scientific community, with critics saying academic dishonesty has been rampant due to a lack of serious punishment.

Berlin-based Springer Nature said on April 20 that it was retracting 107 papers published in Tumor Biology between 2012 and 2016 because authors had supplied the journal’s editors with made-up contact information of third-party reviewers.

“The (reviewers) with whom we have communicated during our investigations confirmed that they did not conduct the peer reviews,” Peter Butler, editorial director for journals Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Springer Nature told Caixin.

The peer review process for a research paper requires scientists in the same field of study, of a similar standing as the author, checking and verifying that the work meets international standards and its results can be replicated.

Most of the 524 authors of the retracted works are from top medical institutions in China, according to the author biographies.

There have been several incidents in recent years where Chinese researchers, who are under pressure to produce academic papers to secure promotions, have been caught plagiarizing or falsifying research data. For example, British publisher BioMed Central, which publishes more than 200 academic journal titles, retracted 43 papers, including 41 from China, in March 2015 after discovering fake peer reviews.

The demand for ghost-writing services for academic papers in the country has also spawned a multibillion-dollar industry.

Some of the contact information of peer reviewers supplied by authors was fictitious, while others had the names of real researchers but with defunct email addresses, the publisher said.

Editors decided to retract these papers in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a nonprofit organization that acts as a self-governing body for companies involved in scholarly publications, a statement from journal Tumor Biology said.

“After a thorough investigation we have strong reasons to believe that the peer review process was compromised,” it said.

SAGE Publications acquired the journal Tumor Biology in 2016.

Some medical researchers commit academic fraud in China to meet the demands of publishing within a system where they don’t have the resources to meet international standards, said Ronnie Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate from China, studying at Leiden University’s Medical Center in the Netherlands.

“Many try to get published in lesser-known publications in the belief that they would not get caught or punished,” he said.

Unlike in European universities and research facilities where academics that dabble in unethical practices would be fired, only a few Chinese researchers have seen their careers cut short by such scandals, he said. But, they might find it difficult to access future research grants, he added.

The scandal has also shed light on a controversial practice where publishers ask authors and companies offering ghost-writing services to suggest potential third-party reviewers.

Publishers must take the responsibility to verify the authenticity of academic papers including peer reviews, Wang Chunfa, head of the government-backed China Association for Science and Technology during a meeting with Arnout Jacobs, head of Springer Nature’s operations in Greater China on April 18, two days before the retractions were announced.

Procedures to verify and evaluate the findings in academic papers prior to publication should be strengthened, he said.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (

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