As part of his job as fraud detector at biomedical publisher Spandidos, John Chesebro trawls through research papers, scrutinising near identical images of cells. For him, the tricks used by “paper mills” — the outfits paid to fabricate scientific studies — have become wearily familiar.

They range from clear duplication — the same images of cell cultures on microscope slides copied across numerous, unrelated studies — to more subtle tinkering. Sometimes an image is rotated “to try to trick you to think it’s different”, Chesebro says. “At times you can detect where parts of an image were digitally manipulated to add or remove cells or other features to make the data look like the results you are expecting in the hypothesis.” He estimates he rejects 5 to 10 per cent of papers because of fraudulent data or ethical issues.

Spandidos, based in Athens and London, accepts a large volume of papers from China, with around 90 per cent of its output coming from Chinese authors. In the mid-2010s, independent scientists accused Spandidos of publishing papers with results that recycled the same sets of data. As part of its response to the allegations, the publisher is using a team of in-house fraud detectors to weed out and retract fake research.

Over the past two decades, Chinese researchers have become some of the world’s most prolific publishers of scientific papers. The Institute for Scientific Information, a US-based research analysis organisation, calculated that China produced 3.7mn papers in 2021 — 23 per cent of global output — and just behind the 4.4mn total from the US.

At the same time, China has been climbing the ranks of the number of times a paper is cited by other authors, a metric used to judge output quality. Last year, China surpassed the US for the first time in the number of most cited papers, according to Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, although that figure was flattered by multiple references to Chinese research that first sequenced the Covid-19 virus genome.

The soaring output has sparked concern in western capitals. Chinese advances in high-profile fields such as quantum technology, genomics and space science, as well as Beijing’s surprise hypersonic missile test two years ago, have amplified the view that China is marching towards its goal of achieving global hegemony in science and technology.

That concern is a part of a wider breakdown of trust in some quarters between western institutions and Chinese ones, with some universities introducing background checks on Chinese academics amid fears of intellectual property theft.

But experts say that China’s impressive output masks systemic inefficiencies and an underbelly of low-quality and fraudulent research. Academics complain about the crushing pressure to publish to gain prized positions at research universities.

“To survive in Chinese academia, we have many KPIs [key performance indicators] to hit. So when we publish, we focus on quantity over quality,” says a physics lecturer from a prominent Beijing university. “When prospective employers look at our CVs, it is much easier for them to judge the quantity of our output over the quality of the research,” he adds.

The world’s scientific publishers are becoming increasingly alarmed by the scale of fraud. An investigation last year by their joint Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope) concluded: “The submission of suspected fake research papers . . . is growing and threatens to overwhelm the editorial processes of a significant number of journals.”

The problem is that no publisher — even the most vigilant — has the capacity to weed out all the frauds. Retractions are rare and can take years. In the meantime scientists may be building on a fake paper’s findings. In the biomedical sphere this is all the more worrying when the aim of a lot of research is the development of treatments for serious diseases.

Bernhard Sabel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg, is one of many journal editors calling for “swift global action to restore the health of the scientific record and to prevent the erosion of trust in science”.

“Science and ‘true love’ have two things in common: both are infatuated by passion, and both rely on trust,” Sabel says. “If trust is lost, it is very hard to go back.”

Brokers and ‘busybodies’

The proliferation of dubious research that has accompanied China’s emergence as a scientific and technological powerhouse has caught the attention of a number of independent scholars who are policing the country’s output.

One of them is David Bimler, a psychologist formerly at Massey University in New Zealand. He identified 150 biomedical papers from Jilin University that used the same few data sets and concluded that the institution had an internal paper mill. Jilin University was cited by two other experts who spoke to the Financial Times as a top offender for generating fake research. Jilin University did not respond to a request for comment.

“They probably never thought that busybodies would start paying attention to their papers, because they didn’t try to hide the mass production very well,” Bimler says.

The publishers’ organisation Cope describes paper mills as “profit oriented, unofficial and potentially illegal organisations that produce and sell fraudulent manuscripts that seem to resemble genuine research”.

Estimates of the extent of fake scientific output vary enormously, from 2 per cent to 20 per cent or more of published papers. Extrapolating from his own research, Sabel puts paper mills’ global revenues at a minimum of €1bn a year and probably much more. There is general agreement that China is one of the world’s worst offenders, Sabel says, though Cope points out the paper mills are “by no means confined to China”.

Online brokers selling written-to-order papers proliferate on Chinese ecommerce sites such as Taobao. One broker advertising recently on Taobao charged clients $800 for a submission to a middle-tier domestic medical publication.

“Scientific misconduct is an organised practice and has been run as a business almost always half openly,” says a Chinese medical researcher based in the US. She explains that fraudulent papers from low-tier universities, which use cheaper paper mills, are easier to spot. They tend to recycle the same fraudulent data sets multiple times, while academics at more prestigious universities may purchase “leftover” experimental data from other researchers.

Beijing has introduced penalties on the use of paper mills, including banning offending researchers from applying for government funding. But weak enforcement means the practice is still rife.

Chesebro says that a typical red flag is when authors refuse to share the underlying data that supports their hypothesis. “I’ve seen every excuse. Two dozen times, researchers have said their computer was broken. I have heard of five author deaths, a dozen or so authors that left the institute and are no longer contactable,” he says.

While academics around the world have to publish to advance their careers, the pressure in China is exacerbated by the scale of competition fighting for limited resources. The ISI estimates that there are more than 2mn researchers in China competing for funds from central and local governments. The physics lecturer says this creates an “institutionalised incentive to cheat” to hit targets for citations and publication output. Academics that publish in top journals are awarded cash bonuses at some universities, although this practice is increasingly frowned on.

Cathie Martin, a botanist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, who runs exchanges and joint programmes with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is enthusiastic about the abilities of the Chinese researchers who work in her plant science lab. But she is well aware of the pressures on them.

“All aspects of scientific research in China are based on publications — not only the positions that you are offered but the grade of position,” she says. “If one of my guys is looking for a position back in China, very often they’ll be told: ‘You can apply to our institution if you get one more paper’, and then they’ll tell you the level of the journal you have to publish in.”

The medical sphere has a particularly bad reputation for producing fake research because clinicians are required to publish to climb the hospital hierarchy, forcing time-poor doctors to outsource to paper mills.

Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist in California who highlights cases of bad science, was part of a team that examined 20,000 biomedical papers from authors around the world and found that 800 had instances of “inappropriately duplicated images”. “Papers from China had a higher than average chance of containing problematic images,” she says.

Prominent scientists have been found to produce dodgy research, too. Bik says she uncovered 50 papers by a well-known immunologist working in China “with varying problems from small to heavily manipulated images”. The Chinese government decided after an official review that “he was not responsible for any of these manipulated images”, Bik adds. “He got a little slap on the wrist but nothing serious. He is still publishing.” 

Can you spot the image manipulation?

Two fluorescent microscopy images in a paper authored by Chinese academics purport to show the results of different experiments . . .

 . . . but they share a lot of features that have simply been mirrored

‘Sea turtle’ backlash

The scrutiny of fake Chinese research has exacerbated the mistrust between western and Chinese academic institutions, which was already growing as a consequence of fraying geopolitical relations — and allegations that researchers from China are using their time in overseas labs to steal intellectual property.

“In view of the increasing geopolitical tensions, we are conducting background checks [of applicants from China] in relation to our grants and other activities, whenever and wherever this is relevant,” says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, chief executive of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, one of Denmark’s largest funders of academic research. “We do this based on recommendations from the authorities and in collaboration with our grant recipients.”

China has swiftly and indisputably become the world leader in the commercialisation of research as measured by patents. The World Intellectual Property Organization says the country’s patent office received 1.6mn applications in 2021, compared with 600,000 for its US counterpart.

Such activity has unsettled western governments, who have erected barriers for many Chinese science and tech researchers coming to their universities, fearing that these academic exchanges have contributed to the country’s rapid global ascension. Several Chinese researchers in the US have been arrested under suspicion of leaking intellectual property to China under a Donald Trump-era programme to root out economic espionage.

“Some of the growing hostility and suspicion [in the west] is around legitimate areas of concern, some of it is paranoid and daft,” says James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at University College London. “But there are now many examples of Chinese science and technology espionage and dodgy practices.”

As countries that have been “big contributors to the growth of collaborative science” decelerate their engagement, the prospects for China’s research output “are far more uncertain” than they have been in the recent past, Wilsdon adds.

In China, academics with international training are most likely to be published in leading publications. Qingnan Xie, an intellectual property expert at Harvard University, found that 76 per cent of articles published in the Nature and Science journals from Chinese addresses had an author who had studied overseas before returning to the mainland.

Beijing has bankrolled the massive outbound movement of science graduates to study in universities from Tokyo to San Francisco and London through scholarships and grants, providing incentives to return to the mainland once they’ve completed their education.

This so-called “sea turtle” strategy is one pillar in a broader policy to develop an indigenous scientific and technological power base. It has “fostered international collaboration and lifted standards in China”, says Steven Inchcoombe, president for research at Springer Nature.

As geopolitical tensions erode the trust needed to keep collaborative ventures alive, scientists say both sides are set to lose out. For many labs worldwide, Chinese researchers are a crucial source of labour to participate in large-scale experiments. Western researchers benefit from access to cheap and well-educated Chinese PhD students who can help bolster their findings by running experiments.

“China is very good at application and refinement,” says Inchcoombe. “But the culture is more one of systematic thinking building on other research, whereas the west tends to applaud individualism. China doesn’t seem to see the need for standout heroes in the same way.”

The physics lecturer in Beijing makes a similar point. “American or British scientists tend to have breakthrough ideas and do truly innovative research,” he says. “Chinese are quick learners. They help to find evidence and make the framework more solid.” 

Carsten Fink, chief economist at the World Intellectual Property Organization, says Chinese innovation is strikingly successful when researchers are able to “leapfrog” over existing technology into a new field. One example is Beijing’s strategy of focusing investment on electric vehicle production rather than the already saturated combustion engine market. Another is the country’s domination of global solar panel production.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at ISI, points out that China’s international collaborations are “strongly biased towards physical sciences: information and communication sciences, materials and areas like that — and particularly so in the US. In some areas of US research, 80 per cent of publications have a China address for a co-author.”

Discovering the extent of Chinese involvement in US research had come as “a complete surprise” to some American policymakers, Adams says. “They were quite unaware of how far Chinese research had moved to underpin what they were doing. The most highly cited US-authored research in a lot of these technology areas is co-authored with China.”

Advocates for science in the US are working to ensure that collaboration with China does not collapse completely. “Our culture of science is a beacon for Chinese scientists,” says Sudip Parikh, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “They help to enrich our economy and our labs. These intellectual relationships matter and it is important that we don’t lose the big picture of the benefits of international collaboration.”

If scientific ties with the west break down, the individuals who will suffer most are diligent Chinese academics, as an atmosphere of distrust and the country’s reputation for fraudulent research make it more difficult for them to gain international recognition.

“The worst impact is on sincere Chinese researchers,” says Bimler. “There is enough junk coming from China that researchers privately admit that they don’t read papers if they’re from a Chinese source . . . Scientists don’t have time to determine what is junk and what isn’t.” 

Additional reporting by Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai

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