Whistleblower Kicks Off Another Academic Storm After State Probe Clears Scientists of Fraud
When an official investigation into academic plagiarism was about to end with a slap on the wrist, China’s most high-profile scientific whistleblower started another storm.
Rao Yi, president of Beijing’s Capital Medical University, sent an open letter leveling accusations of academic misconduct at one scientist whose name was cleared by the probe. The letter suggested a new investigation should be conducted, and that it should be led by the accused’s American post-doctoral advisor, a Nobel laurate.
This unusual confrontation brings to the surface long-standing and increasing worries over academic integrity in China.
More than a year after five prestigious Chinese scientists were accused of plagiarism and fraud in academic papers, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology cleared most of the allegations related to them Thursday. But the ministry did find “misuse” of images in three of the scientists’ papers and issued penalties against two of them.
Two of the scientists, Rao and Pei Gang, had their names cleared. But soon after, Rao published his letter accusing Pei, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, of misconduct. This accusatory letter was sent directly to Pei, since he is the director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Scientific Ethics Committee.
Rao’s letter (link in Chinese) renewed his challenges against a 1999 paper by Pei, made in a previous letter. Pei was cleared by the recent Science Ministry investigation, and other academics rushed to his defense.
In a notification (link in Chinese) published Thursday on its website, the ministry said it found loopholes and deficiencies in data, laboratory and team management, exposing insufficient attention to rigorous research.
The three scientists who “misused” images, according to the investigation, are Cao Xuetao, an immunologist and president of Nankai University in the northern city of Tianjin; Li Hongliang, the former dean of the School of Basic Medical Sciences at Wuhan University; and Geng Meiyu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica.
Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University.
Cao came into the spotlight in November 2019, when Dutch science integrity expert Elisabeth Bik, known for detecting image manipulation in scientific publications, questioned images used in more than 60 papers by Cao. Bik said she was concerned that images in the papers were doctored, indicating falsified data that could undermine the validity and quality of the reports.
The Science Ministry said it reviewed 63 of Cao’s papers and found no fraud or plagiarism. But the ministry said many of the papers misused images, reflecting a lack of rigorous lab management. Cao, also an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was barred for a year from applying for national science and technology projects and was disqualified for a year as an evaluation expert for science projects supported by fiscal funds. He is also not allowed to supervise graduate students for one year.
The other two scientists punished in the recent investigation, Li and Geng, were also mentioned in Rao’s previous letter on academic misconduct. Also in November 2019, a letter said to be written by Rao circulated online. The letter was addressed to the National Natural Science Foundation of China, an official body affiliated with the State Council, and demanded an investigation into research by Geng, Pei and Li. Rao later told media that he did write the letter but never sent it. Rao himself was also accused of academic fraud, and became target of the same investigation together with the three people he accused.
The Science Ministry found that Li papers misused images, reflecting a lack of rigorous data processing. Li was removed last year as dean of Wuhan University’s School of Basic Medical Sciences. He was barred for two years from applying for national science and technology projects and was disqualified for two years as an evaluation expert for science projects supported by fiscal funds. He is also not allowed to supervise graduate students for two years.
Academic fraud scandals have resulted in the retraction by major Western academic journals of papers by Chinese scientists. In April 2020, Scientific Reports, an online open-access “mega journal” published by Nature Research, took down an article by a group of scholars led by Jiangsu University professor Dai Meifeng after concluding the paper cribbed “significant portions of the text and equations” from someone else’s thesis without attribution. In 2017, Berlin-based publisher Springer Nature retracted 107 papers from China published in the journal Tumor Biology due to suspicious peer review practices.
The research in question by Geng led to a drug for treating Alzheimer’s disease, GV-971. The drug was cleared for use in China in 2019, becoming the first approved new Alzheimer’s drug in 17 years, even though critics questioned the authenticity of the data and the study design. Shanghai Green Valley Pharmaceutical Co., Geng’s commercial partner on the drug, started a global Phase 3 trial of the drug last November.
In the 2019 letter, Rao asserted that Geng’s GV-971 paper could only have been fabricated. The Science Ministry said it found no fraud in Geng’s five articles but only minor misuse of images. Geng wasn’t penalized but received “criticism and education” from the ministry.
Rao also accused Pei, a molecular biologist, of fabricating graphics in a paper published in 1999 in the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Rao called it a “shame” that the Chinese Academy of Sciences elected Pei to the academy based on the paper, which focused on a mechanism in cells that’s related to a broad range of diseases. Bik also raised questions about images used in another paper by Pei.
After the Science Ministry disclosed its findings and found Pei innocent, Rao posted on social media that he sent another open letter to Chinese Academy of Sciences to again report fraud regarding Pei’s 1999 paper. In his second letter, Rao said the findings in Pei’s paper cannot be duplicated by other scientists and Pei’s lab hasn’t published any paper confirming the findings.
Rao suggested that an investigation of Pei should be led by American physician and biochemist Robert Joseph Lefkowitz, who was Pei’s post-doctoral advisor at Duke University in the U.S., and Brian Kobilka, an American physiologist. Lefkowitz and Kobilka shared the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their findings on the workings of G protein-coupled receptors, the focus of Pei’s paper.
Hou Yujun, a co-author of Pei’s paper, told Caixin that the paper went through many revisions and resubmissions, and there might have been some errors in one round of revisions.
In response to Rao’s accusation, Zhang Shuguang, a Chinese American biochemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology posted a public letter to Rao Friday on the science blog ScienceNet.cn, supporting the findings of Pei’s 1999 paper. Zhang said Rao’s accusation is “wrong,” and the work of his team and others directly support Pei’s findings.
“It is reckless and extremely damaging to the scientific reputation and career of those being accused, especially to young scientists,” Zhang said in the letter.
The co-authors of the 1999 paper also posted a statement on ScienceNet.cn Friday, supporting the findings in the paper.
Rao himself was also accused of academic fraud. In 2018, well-known Chinese anti-plagiarism campaigner Fang Zhouzi, alleged that Rao used the same photo in four papers to demonstrate results under different experimental conditions, indicating fabricated data. Rao responded that the photo was not from his lab.
The Science Ministry said it reviewed two of Rao’s papers used to apply for projects supported by the National Natural Science Foundation and found no fabrication.
Contact reporter Denise Jia (firstname.lastname@example.org) and editor Bob Simison (email@example.com).
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