December 2010

Improving Scientific Ethics Education in China

Journal of Biological Chemistry Associate Editor Xiao-Fan Wang has been taking an active approach in trying to help China better educate its researchers about the rules and responsibilities of scientific publishing. (Titled "Defining the Boundaries" in print version.)

Xiao-Fan WangXiao-Fan Wang, the Donald and Elizabeth Cooke professor of experimental oncology at Duke University and a Journal of Biological Chemistry associate editor, certainly had heard about and witnessed some unusual article submissions. He recalls one instance in which a colleague rejected an article because the author had apparently copied material straight from another paper only to come across another article for review by the same author a few days later; it was the exact same paper, still containing the copied text, submitted to a different journal.

Although such anecdotes can be humorous, they also can be distressing, particularly if the authors involved are from Wang’s home country of China, a rapidly emerging scientific power but one where publishing output seems to be outpacing publishing knowledge.

Of particular concern was a recent news story in Nature describing an anonymous survey in which one-third of Chinese researchers reported that they had committed some form of scientific misconduct. “If someone hears that, they might think Chinese science is corrupt,” Wang says, “which is not true. Of the reported incidents, true fraud only accounted for a tiny minority. The most common issue was that Chinese authors had plagiarized sentences or paragraphs.”

The underlying problem, as others have noted, is the language barrier Chinese scientists face when publishing internationally, particularly given that Chinese characters are fundamentally different from the English alphabet. Another, less publicized factor is cultural: Wang points out that Chinese secondary education has long placed a stronger emphasis on being able to memorize and recite previously written material (like famous poems) than on coming up with original writings.

“Now, I’m not excusing these actions,” Wang continues, “but I think it’s important to understand the reasoning behind it. Of course, it’s more important to remedy it. Scientists in China want to do the right thing; the country doesn’t have the proper system in place.”

Wang has been taking an active approach to trying to help China better educate its researchers about the rules and responsibilities of scientific publishing. This educational effort is beneficial for his homeland as it becomes a science power but also serves JBC’s interests. “China is going to be a big market for the journal, and we want more submissions, but we don’t want any retractions.”

Scientific Integrity
Francis L. Macrina's book "Scientific Integrity" will be translated and used in an ethics course in China. 

Wang figured funding agencies would be the best places to start, so he approached the president of the Chinese equivalent of the National Science Foundation and mentioned that they had a responsibility to push for changes that would promote good ethics, similar to the way the National Institutes of Health requires an ethics class for some of its grantees.

Not long after, he got a call from the Chinese foundation’s deputy director of biological sciences and was asked to identify an ethics textbook that could be translated into Chinese. So, he found a book on scientific integrity written by Francis L. Macrina, the vice president for research at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Macrina was supportive of my proposal and sent me a copy of the book so I could see if it’s current enough for translation; he’s writing a third edition now, but China is hoping to introduce the course into next year’s curriculum, so hopefully the second edition will work.”

Wang also penned a letter to the vice minister of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, asking him about changing the way the funding system works. Specifically, he was concerned with the megaproject grants that generally are awarded to laboratory consortia with the best ability to network with bureaucrats, thus making schmoozing more valuable than doing research or properly training students. He also encourages individual institutes to stop creating extra pressure to produce high-impact papers through practices such as financial incentives or graduation requirements.

Wang also hopes that the Chinese funding agencies can take a stronger role in punishing individuals when the rare cases of true data fraud arise. “Maybe it could be something like a loss of funding for three to five years, or even a lifetime ban on receiving government funding if the offense is very serious— something that will show to everyone that if you get caught, you have to face the consequences,” he says. “But don’t leave misconduct issues in the hands of university administrators, because they can drag their feet in such situations.”

“I know some universities in the United States have not been immune to such problems in recent years,” he continues, “so I know how difficult it can be for one institution to punish its own and publicize it.”

Still, although effective punishing of severe cases is required, Wang believes in an education-first approach, and he believes that China will be responsive to his, and others’, recommendations. “One element of the Chinese government that works in our favor is that much of Chinese science is run by technocrats and not by politicians.”

“They tend to think very academically and logically,” he says, “and that makes necessary transitions quicker. Two years ago, I organized a letter-writing by more than 50 scientists in the U.S. and China to the prime minister about the exodus of students to foreign graduate programs and stated that the main problem was that compensation at Chinese graduate schools was very low. And he recognized the problem and raised stipends threefold. So I’m quite hopeful we will see meaningful changes soon.”

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

Below, Xiao-Fan Wang talks about his education in China and the U.S. and how the language barrier faced by Chinese scientists contributes to plagiarism.

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