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.”


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In regards to the statement that plagiarism is fraud, Dr Wang's intent (and by extension, mine) was to distinguish plagiarism from data fabrication, which he believes is a more serious deception. - Nick Zagorski


It is indeed a sad day when scientific dishonesty is perceived to be “humorous.” The integrity of the scientific literature is of quintessential importance to the survival of science. It makes little difference when the cause of dishonesty is social, financial, commercial or psychotic. It cannot be tolerated. There appears to be some confusion with respect to the terms “plagiarism” and “true fraud”; plagiarism is fraud! Ken Mann, Ph.D.


I applaud Xiao-fan Wang's efforts to focus on science integrity and the education of young scientists in the doing of science.This is important and deserves support, Alice S. Huang, PhD




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