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.