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Science Reform in China

There have been all sorts of scientific scandals involving faked journal articles, faked peer reviews, duplicated papers and figures, etc. over the last few years. It’s been a running battle: our current technologies allow for these things to be done more easily, but caught more easily as well. And a pretty significant share of these problems have, unfortunately, been associated with Chinese researchers and institutions.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. Actually, not much does, or at least that’s the plan. They’ve been talking for a while about establishing a “social score” system, where people accumulate (or lose) points according to their behavior, and the most recent information I have is that this is already coming along and will be rolled out generally over the next couple of years. It is easy to both see the point of this idea and simultaneously fear its implications (and recent news makes you wonder whether here in the US we’ve inadvertently outsourced a similar plan to Facebook).

It now appears that a similar system is going to be put in place for scientific conduct. According to Nature News, the Chinese government is centralizing research misconduct investigations (and adjudications), producing a research conduct score that will last throughout someone’s career, setting up a national list of acceptable and unacceptable journals to publish in, and remake the country’s system for promoting and evaluating researchers. That last one is well overdue; the worst cases of fraud and misconduct have been driven almost completely by the way the existing setup rewards people. Domestic journal publishers are on the list for possible penalties, as are entire institutions if they’re determined to have been encouraging or covering for misconduct.

That’s going to be interesting to watch. Many of these ideas sound quite good, but implementing them will be another matter. There will be grey areas – some lower-end journals, for example, publish crap along with honest papers. And there will be opportunities for even more trouble, what with human nature being the way it is. Some people will try to sink rivals or enemies by alleging misconduct and tying them up in score-lowering investigations, and on the other side, some higher-ups may feel an even stronger incentive to squash any honest whistleblowers before things get out of control. (These problems, needless to say, are not at all unique to Chinese science, but the new system could turn up the volume on them if not administered carefully). Overall, this plan will mainly raise the stakes in the misconduct game, with all the good and bad consequences of that as possible outcomes.

But in principle, I’m glad to see the Chinese authorities taking the problem seriously. There are clearly people who are aware of the damage that all this corner-cutting is doing to the country’s research and to its reputation, and this seems to be a real effort to do something about it. That’s at least more encouraging than the lip service that is the traditional response to this sort of thing all over the world. For any kind of organized human-behavior-driven system to work (as far as I can see) there need to be both rewards for what you’re trying to accomplish and penalties for trying to subvert it. And both of these should be as clear, as fair, and as consistently applied as possible.

Humans being what they are (see Kant on the “crooked timber” of humanity), every system we’ve set up falls short of these ideals in one way or another, but that’s no excuse not to keep trying. And although I have no love for the current Chinese government, I wish them luck in this endeavor, and I hope that they can make it work in a just fashion. If they don’t, they will end up with an even worse situation than they had before.

21 comments on “Science Reform in China”

  1. Billy says:

    Oooh, a social score system like on that episode of Black Mirror? This should be interesting. Sarcasm aside, the scientific conduct score sounds great but I thought the theft/lies/corruption in China were sanctioned by the government. No?

    1. MTK says:

      Correct.

      Pretty hard to change the behaviors and norms of the people when the people know that the powers that be act in those very same ways.

      A cynical populace won’t be very receptive to any of this, so no one is incentivized to change. With no carrot that only leaves the stick which eventually loses effectiveness.

  2. SIrWired says:

    I’ll believe it when I see acupuncture studies to start to consistently come out of China with any answer but “Resounding Success”.

    You perform double-blinded acupuncture studies in the US or Europe, and it almost invariably comes out as a placebo, but Chinese-sourced studies report the exact opposite result. It doesn’t even matter if two studies are self-contradictory (due to differing acupuncture methods); Everybody’s a Winner!

  3. loupgarous says:

    Mao sanctioned the Cultural Revolution with the idea of curtailing supposed abuses committed during the Great Leap Forward. I can easily see “social scores” being abused in the same way, if President for Life Xi decides he needs a convenient knout with which to beat his domestic opposition.

    It was only last month you shared with us that “traditional Chinese medicine” was going to be allowed to be marketed and practiced with no regard to safety and efficacy, and that even questioning its usefulness was now a punishable offense.

    The Chinese Communist Party says they want, on one hand, to punish scientific misconduct, and on the other hand, to punish attempts to evaluate traditional medicine by scientific means. Something’s got to give, because these two goals conflict directly. Communism, in general, has a bad record for tolerating reality testing of any worth.

    1. Jeff says:

      This will be interesting indeed: as you observe, the Chinese Communist Party has a poor track record; but on the other hand, scientific misconduct costs ultimately costs the government money both at the time and later, through unproductive work based on bogus data. So they do have a certain self-interest here that might actually drive them to clean house.

      It also reminds me of an account from John Clark’s “Ignition!” in which an inept German scientist was charged and fined for misleading Soviet science.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Good point. The Soviets were doing very sound work in nuclear physics at the very same time that Trofim Lysenko’s ideas were still being inflicted on all Soviet scientists (commissars were even sent to the nuclear weapons project to make sure the physicists and engineers signed on to Lysenkoism, and one guy nearly got dropped from the program by Lavrentiy Beria himself for refusing to repudiate “western” genetics).

        So, the Chinese could operate a system with sound practices everywhere but medicine. Not a good development for Chinese people, but it would suffice to keep them in the running in every other field.

        1. insilicoconsulting says:

          Hope everyone is aware who Lysenko was and that his eugenic genocides were pioneered and enthusiastically carried out in the US. It was only with it’s infamy and global condemnation that American and british eugenists who were in favour of killing the unfortunates started fading away. But they were still sympathetic to this view and dismayed that Nazi germany and Soviet Union were doing effectively what they could not!

          This score certainly portends evil if it is extended to all spheres of life. If only for publishing then I would heartily recommend it also be adopted to the western sphere too 🙂

          1. Anonymous says:

            in-sil-co: “… who Lysenko was and that his eugenic genocides were pioneered and enthusiastically carried out in the US.” Say what? The other day I mentioned Francis Galton (the father of scientiometrics) in a post about Intercessory Prayer in the Dr. Oz thread. Galton is also the father of eugenics and selective breeding for betterment of the human race (proposed back in 1883, before Lysenko was born). Lysenko rejected the concepts of genetics, Mendelian inheritance, and Darwinian evolution. He promoted the idea that traits could be transformed by direct manipulation of the subject (e.g., seeds or plants). Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned and / or put to death in the USSR. Lysenko’s ideas never caught on the west.

          2. tangent says:

            How does eugenics without genetics work?

    2. Old Timer says:

      Can anyone explain to me why the Western press publishes Chinese names using the Chinese convention (Xi Jinping) instead of the English convention (Xi, Jinping or Jinping Xi)?

      1. loupgarous says:

        It is odd. We don’t do that for Japanese, whose names are formed the same way (surname first).

        1. Derek Lowe says:

          Nor for the Hungarians – for them, Nagy Imre was succeeded by Kadar Janos.

      2. Old Timer says:

        My wife is (was?) a journalist (even has a graduate degree from a top journalism school) and does not know why.

  4. John Wayne says:

    If you enjoyed my research, leave a ‘Like!’

    1. loupgarous says:

      And it’s a short step from there to “If you enjoyed my research, re-Tweet!”, and thence to “Plagiarism? Moi? I was merely re-Tweeting this excellent paper!”

  5. Snobert the Grave says:

    Re: social scoring, Goodhart’s law?

  6. luysii says:

    3 years ago, an old friend noted the following

    Another friend, an emeritus prof of chemical engineering, referees a lot of papers. He estimates that 80% of the papers in his field, quantum chemistry, coming from China are absolute trash. According to him China gives bonuses to people getting published in high impact journals. What he finds particularly appalling is that he writes up a detailed list of corrections and improvements for the paper, and then finds it published totally unchanged in another journal.

    1. Dr. Who says:

      I’ve had the same experience frequently enough in biology that I’m reluctant to review papers from China.

  7. Anon says:

    I hear from my Chinese friend that if you cannot publish your work in the reputable journals such as Nature, Science, JACS etc., then you are no good and deserve no job as well in China! I think that could be the reason why there is so much fraud in Chinese science. I mean we can’t all be good at all times! I am always curious what do the so called mediocre scientists survive in “dog eat dog” World?

    1. Dr Osmium says:

      Not just China! A prof at my Ivy League graduate institution said that publishing anything in Org Lett or below was “career suicide”…

  8. anonymous says:

    Before there is that science reform in China, they should do political reform as well! The later class is an absolute farce. There is this apparatchik class in China that has been drilled into them that will not change despite being educated abroad in places such as the US, Europe etc.

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