Chinese Government Cracks Down on Academic Fraud

WASHINGTON — China is cracking down on academic research fraud following revelations in January that publishers have retracted thousands of works by Chinese academics in recent years. However, observers say that addressing the problem will be difficult because it is so pervasive. 

According to the scientific journal Nature, some 14,000 papers were retracted from English language journals in 2023 alone, three-quarters of which involved a Chinese co-author.   

Last month, the Chinese Ministry of Education gave universities a deadline to submit a full list of academic articles that journals have retracted over the past three years, allowing the ministry to audit the retracted research and determine how widespread fraud is in Chinese academic settings. 

Although the findings of the Education Ministry’s review have yet to be released, Chinese academics, students, and professors say the problem is pervasive.  

Part of the issue they say is that it is easy to pay for research to be written by ghostwriters and published in low-quality journals. 

“If you have no problem financially, you can let others do your research for you. Whether it is publishing a paper or finding a journal, they have such a one-stop service,” Sun Fugui, a former graduate student at Ludong University in Shandong Province, told VOA Chinese. “And it’s not just students, even teachers use these ghostwriters.” 

The other problem, Sun adds, is that low-end Chinese academic journals frequently publish fraudulent research without checking for quality, as they previously faced little domestic backlash from publishing these pieces.

“The purpose of these journals is not to publish good papers or to let others see their  

great academic achievements,” Sun said. “Their purpose is to meet students’ and  

teachers’ need to publish papers.” 

Yang Ningyuan, the former director of a psychology research institute at Zhengzhou University in Henan Province, said he had received at least a dozen calls from strangers offering to publish articles for him in exchange for cash, all of which he rejected. 

“I know a friend who told me personally that he helped eight people write their doctoral dissertations and charged 20,000 yuan for each paper. These Ph.D.s eventually passed,” Yang told VOA Mandarin. “The interesting thing is that my friend himself is not a Ph.D. at all!” 

Analysts believe the political nature of research in China is in part responsible for academic integrity issues. 

Yun Sun, a senior fellow specializing in China at think tank the Stimson Center, said academic cultures in the United States and China both reward academics for publishing high volumes of papers.  

“The difference, however, is with the transparency of information, freedom of academic exchanges, and access to the Chinese research. All are heavily controlled by the state in China,” Yun Sun said in a statement to VOA. “If data is fabricated here in a U.S. university, the person’s colleagues and peers will be able to know and challenge them. But when the fabrication happens in China, it is difficult to impossible to verify.” 

Perry Link, a distinguished professor in Chinese and comparative literature at the University of California, Riverside said the volume of fabricated research in China reflects officials’ disregard for the truth.  

“Fabricated research is part of a broader pattern of official language use in China in which a statement is valued based not on whether it is true or false but on whether it ‘works,’” Link told VOA in a written statement. “Government officials cannot ‘crack down’ in such a system.  The problem is in the design of the system itself.”

Link said political involvement in research also dissuades researchers from producing high-quality new research. 

“Value judgments in the universities are made ultimately by political authorities,” Link said. “Cutting-edge research, even in technical fields, normally is done best by free-thinking minds who see themselves at the cutting edge, not ‘under’ a political authority.” 

Zhang Mingxin, a fourth-year undergraduate at a university in Beijing, said academic fraud as well as the government’s politicization of data have made it difficult for him to do research.  

“Everyone knows that China’s research is plagiarized, and it is no secret that it is falsified, but doing so will make the research very difficult,” Zhang told VOA Chinese. “Under strict government control, a lot of data is difficult to search, especially if some topics are relatively sensitive, and if you need to conduct social surveys, it will definitely be very difficult, because when people make relevant remarks, the government will definitely censor them, and if they are not careful, they may even be sent to jail.” 

According to Yun Sun, Chinese universities will fall behind other global universities because of their unresolved academic integrity issues. 

The Education Ministry has not yet released a plan to alleviate these concerns.

“Chinese academia has not been famous for its creativity and has only become more serious about plagiarism in recent years,” Yun Sun wrote. “As the Chinese academics try to compete with their global peers, the quality problems of their research will be more and more revealed.” 

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