China’s ‘paper mills’ are grinding out fake scientific research at an alarming rate
In May, Chengyi Zhang, a masters student at a prestigious medical school in China, published his first article in a Chinese scientific journal. Then, the calls and WeChat messages began. Suddenly, he was inundated with sales pitches from services offering to produce academic papers under his name, on any subject he wanted.
The messages promised that, for a price of 62,000 yuan ($9,000), the articles could be written and published in low-ranking international medical journals. The callers he spoke to claimed to be employed by peer-reviewed publications, including the Chinese Journal of General Medicine and the Chinese Journal of Hospital Pharmacy.
But Zhang, whose name has been changed to protect him from professional repercussions, believes that the sales staff were really part of a bigger and murkier system. “They are paper mills,” he said in an email, referring to a growing industry dedicated to the production and sale of junk science.
China’s highly competitive medical sector and the nation’s rush to become the world leader in scientific research is creating a growing demand for such services. Certainly, they have proved popular with hard-pressed doctors and scientists keen to secure financial rewards and advance their careers. What is more, experts believe that the industry has grave implications for the credibility of all scientific inquiry emerging from the country.
In 2018, China overtook the US as the world’s most prolific scientific researcher, publishing an average of 305,000 papers a year. But, beneath the impressive statistics, fears abound that a growing number of them are fake.
“Absolutely a masterpiece of art!” read an October Twitter post by Tiger, a biomedical research scientist from China who now lives in the U.S. and spends much of their time anonymously tracking fake papers. The picture they posted came from a Chinese study, published in an international peer-reviewed journal, that examined the development of liver fibrosis into cancer. At first glance, it looks like a normal image of cell formations, but upon closer examination, it’s clear: each cell in the picture is identical, and has been digitally duplicated, copied and pasted in.
Tiger regularly posts about false papers on Twitter and the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. They have been on the receiving end of trolling and hate campaigns, as well as pleas from working doctors to stop exposing fake papers.
Tiger forms part of an informal team of international volunteers, anonymously battling scientific fraud. In the past year, they and their colleagues have uncovered hundreds of bogus studies. The group’s members believe that Chinese paper mills could be churning out thousands more every year.
The torrent of fake science coming from the country is partly driven by a long-standing system in which Chinese institutions offer generous rewards to doctors and scientists for published research.
“If you are published in a high-impact journal, you could literally get an apartment as a reward, or a car,” Tiger explained.
According to a report highlighted by MIT Technology Review, Chinese universities rewarded authors with an average of $44,000 in 2016 for research published in the prominent scientific journals Science and Nature. Meanwhile, a sliding scale of financial incentives is applied to work featured in smaller publications.
“All the way down, they all have similar reward systems,” Tiger explained. “That is a really bad mechanism to really foster a lot of fraud.”
Elisabeth Bik — the only member of the team willing to give her real name — is a microbiologist from the Netherlands, based in California. She began tracking the phenomenon of paper mills at the beginning of 2020.
Along with Tiger, a senior research scientist who goes by the name of Morty, and a mathematical psychologist called Smut Clyde, Bik has spent many unpaid hours searching for anomalies in Chinese research. Early this year, the group discovered one paper mill, which they believe was responsible for more than 500 fake studies examining human gene function and cancer. They all used similar formulaic titles, graphs and images – but were supposedly written by doctors and scientists from all over China. In July, Bik discovered another cache of 121 papers they believe to be from another paper mill. Nicknamed them the “stock photo” papers, as they all shared at least one image with each other.
The team’s members have found smaller groups of papers, which all share their own sets of similarities. Bik also worries that there are many more fake studies in circulation that even she can’t spot.
They “seem legit individually,” she said. “It’s only when you compare massive amounts of these papers that you start to see that they’re all super similar to each other.”
“I think the other ones are either much better or they’re much smaller and harder to detect.”
According to Smut Clyde, paper mills are destabilizing the scientific world and increasing mistrust in legitimate research.
“It probably feeds into the narrative that, ‘Oh, all science is junk, therefore we should abandon science altogether,’” he said during a Zoom call. But, he said, “it’s better to find and remove the junk science than to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
The growing amount of fake research emanating from China has also affected Tiger’s career in the research faculty of a prestigious U.S. university.
With exceptions for the topmost Chinese institutions, Tiger said: “I refuse to review manuscripts from China. Because I feel like I can’t trust any of them.”
Some of the papers claim promising results in important fields. The team worry that falsified, “sexy” results from paper mills could outcompete less exciting, but genuine, research.
“Based on the fake papers, cancer has already been taken care of,” Tiger said, adding that the idea they could give false hope to patients is “unbearable.”
The sale of ghostwritten scientific papers is not restricted to the mills. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one U.S.-based physician recalled a difficult encounter with a student while teaching during his PhD in China.
“She asked me to draft a paper for her and offered me her debit card,” he said. “I felt very shocked. I didn’t know it could work that way.”
He also described turning down an approach by a paper mill to produce fake research for clients.
“Someone wanted to pay me 30,000 yuan ($4,555) to write a paper,” he said. “It’s a waste of resources, bad for reputation, and it’s a disaster for the people doing real jobs.”
In February, the Chinese government issued an order banning institutions from rewarding individuals for published research. Tiger is skeptical that the ruling will have much impact.
“People always have a way to game the system,” they said.
Zhang also considers that, should the working conditions of junior doctors in China not improve, there will continue to be a demand for these services. Faced with low salaries, poor benefits and a lack of social status, he recognizes that the temptation to resort to “academic misconduct” to gain much-needed promotions is great.
After posting about paper mills on Weibo, Tiger received a message that confirms those fears.
“As one of these doctors, I kindly ask you to please leave us alone as soon as possible,” it read. “Countless junior doctors, including those younger than me, look down upon the act of faking papers. But the system in China is just like that, you can’t really fight against it. Without papers, you don’t get a promotion. Without a promotion, you can hardly feed your family. I want to have the time to do scientific research, but it’s impossible.”
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