One of China’s most renowned scientists has been cleared of academic fraud after a yearlong probe into his work by the Chinese Communist Party. The education ministry began investigating immunologist Cao Xuetao in late 2019 after a U.S. microbiologist raised the alarm about dubious research in more than 60 of his papers. Elisabeth Bik flagged that Cao’s work often appeared to be duplicated or fabricated and contained numerous repeated images. 

Bik’s accusation was a humiliating discovery for the Chinese Communist Party, particularly given Cao had been recently appointed chairman of the CCP’s research integrity initiative. 

Though he has now been cleared, Cao has nonetheless been told to correct all errors in the papers flagged by Bik. He’s also barred from supervising graduate students or applying for funding for a year and has been sent an official “letter of criticism” from the Chinese Academy of Engineering. 

In an interview with the Nature science journal, Cao described the investigation as grueling but did not respond to allegations that his work had been deliberately fabricated. 

Bik said the decision failed to adequately address the issues with Cao’s work and was “relatively light” compared to the equivalent in the U.S., which can ban scientists from applying to grants for three to five years. Although she acknowledged that some of the issues may have been the result of honest errors, she said many of Cao’s papers contained duplicated images that simply couldn’t be blamed on mistakes. “It appears as if research fraud has been covered up by the government by just calling it ‘misuse of pictures’ and ‘lack of strict laboratory management,’” she said. 

Why It Matters 

Until Bik’s investigation, Cao Xuetao was one of China’s most admired scientists, known for leading the development of new cancer therapies in the country. Cao had made a speech about research integrity to an audience of thousands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing just one week before Bik published her findings.

The education ministry’s investigation said it found no evidence of plagiarism, fraud, or duplication, but that many of Cao’s papers had “misused images.” Bik said she was dissatisfied with the ministry’s findings and the implications for the integrity of scientific research in China. “If they had reached a different conclusion, the Ministry could have sent out a stronger signal to denounce scientific misconduct,” she said.

The Big Picture

Since discovering Cao’s anomalies, Bik and a team of scientific sleuths have traced a bigger phenomenon in China: the existence of shadowy fake research factories producing replicated scientific results to paying customers. According to Bik and her colleagues, hundreds of papers coming out of China have been faked — a wave of academic fraud that threatens to compromise the country’s scientific integrity. 

China produces more academic papers than anywhere else in the world and the government has been trying to tackle academic fraud by introducing ever harsher punishments for researchers who commit scientific misconduct. Those caught plagiarizing can be kicked out of academia, barred from getting jobs outside the profession, and publicly outed on China’s official social credit database. Nonetheless, some Chinese scientists and doctors still resort to faked research in an ultra-competitive arena with long working hours.

Coda has previously reported on how pre-print websites, which host research that hasn’t yet gone through peer review, can lead to a slew of scientific misinformation