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Snake Oil

A Research Scandal in China

This is not going to be a reassuring story – not for the biomedical literature, and not for the Chinese scientific establishment. But the head of the official Research Integrity initiative there, Xuetao Cao, a former head of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and current president of Nankai University, is now thoroughly involved in a faked-research scandal of his own.

Here’s a post from Leonid Schneider on the situation, which is made worse by the various honors that Cao has accumulated over the years. He has clearly been built up as a paragon of Chinese research and of service to the Chinese state – for example, at one point he was the youngest General in the Chinese armed forces on top of his academic achievements. (I should note that he’s a recent member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, over on the other side of Cambridge, and several other such societies as well). And as recently as last week, he gave an address to a crowd of thousands in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on (yes) research integrity. The speech was live-streamed to universities across the country, and according to Schneider (citing numerous Chinese sources), viewing was mandatory, with completion of a form required afterwards to certify that people had watched.

Now, we get that sort of thing in industry all the time. Every company I’ve worked at has mandatory training on certain subjects, generally (and this is the furthest thing from a coincidence) those topics that the company could possibly find itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit about. So there is mandatory corporate ethics training, mandatory research integrity training, mandatory data safety training, mandatory training about sexual harassment, and so on. In my experience, these things tell you all about things that you should most definitely know already, and let’s be honest: if someone is going to fudge their data, bribe a purchasing manager somewhere, or harass their subordinates, they are not going to be deterred by being told once a year that they shouldn’t do such things.

So it’s interesting that China is treating their academic research enterprise as One Big Corporation for such purposes. Unfortunately, you need to have people at the top setting an example – or at least not setting the opposite one – and what we’re seeing a long list of papers from Cao and co-workers that have clearly duplicated images. Elizabeth Bik has been helping to uncover these; she’s a well-known expert on this behavior with a sharp eye (and has appeared in the comments section here before). Western blots, microscopy – things are rotated, flipped, cropped, and just flat out cut-and-pasted. It is difficult for me to imagine how an author’s record can contain such a variety of careless or honest mistakes over so many papers for such a long time. There are now over 50 papers flagged on PubPeer (whose site actually went down the other day, likely exacerbated by high traffic), and more are being added. In some cases, as Schneider’s post notes, the problem is the low quality of digital reproduction in the older papers. We don’t really know how far back this stuff goes.

But he also shows what you run into when you check out the earlier years of Cao’s publication record. How about work using “emitted Qigong energy” to cure metastatic tumors in mice? This is the career of someone who rises to the top of the Chinese research establishment? To be sure, there is a lot of this “external Qi” crap cluttering up the literature, but that doesn’t excuse it. The Chinese government has been pushing all sorts of traditional remedies more and more over the years, with little regard to how much of it is unproven and/or unprovable. Frankly, a great deal of it is embarrassing stuff and does no credit to the Chinese research establishment.

Neither does the elevation of Dr. Cao, though, from all appearances. He has replied to Bik on one of the PubPeer pages, saying that

“. . .I remain confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications and our work’s reproducibility. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for any lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership and the concerns you raised serve as a fresh reminder to me just how important my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short. . .I feel therefore very heavy-hearted and tremendously sorry, to my current and former students, my staff and colleagues, my peers, and the larger community. I most sincerely apologize for any oversight on my part and any inconvenience it might have caused. . .”

It looks like he’s going to have a lot of things to feel heavy-hearted about. Interestingly, there has been some open reporting of this in the Chinese media, which suggests that the government may be prepared to throw Cao under the bus, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is for that American expression. I note that there is even fuller coverage in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which is what I would expect. There are, naturally, some people in China breaking out the “agents working with foreign forces to discredit Chinese research” angle (hit “translate tweet” on that one if you don’t read Chinese), but the fact that Cao is already apologetic in public amid the media coverage indicates that this won’t be the main response. Fortunately. Anytime you see the “wreckers and saboteurs” explanation trotted out without supporting evidence, by any organization or government, you should be alert to a much higher probability that you’re being lied to. Such things do happen, but you need more than just an assertion, because it’s such an easy accusation to make.

Frankly, if you want to apply Occam’s razor, we do not need to bring in external forces trying to discredit the Chinese research establishment. They are perfectly capable of doing that on their own – after all, they put a person with dozens of faulty and suspicious papers in charge of national research integrity, and I don’t think any foreign agents tricked them into it.

And let me finish up by reiterating something I’ve said when things have come up like this in the past: it’s a damn shame. Because there are, in fact, a lot of very good, very talented, honest scientists in Chinese research. I’ve worked with many over the years, just in my own field, and you can find them not only in chemistry and biology, but in many other fields besides. The real scientists of China, though, are not being well served by their leaders. For instance, instead of sitting down the other day to be lectured about “Xi Jinping’s new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, vigorously promoting the spirit of scientists, strengthening the styles of work and study” (which was the theme of that “National Science Ethics and Study Style Conference” that Dr. Cao spoke at), perhaps everyone could have been back in the lab doing something useful. Just a thought.

72 comments on “A Research Scandal in China”

  1. tally ho says:

    Perhaps Professor Chairman Cao will have to attend one of Xi Jinping’s re-education or “job training” centers?

    1. Jimmy says:

      Ugly western jerk. Learn how to discuss science without political bias

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Calm it down, please. There’s no need to make your points with ad hominem attacks.

        1. Lin Yi says:

          Derek, nice writing! Agree with what you said! Ignore Jimmy! He is truly a jerk and not representative of typical Chinese scientists!

    2. Bernardo says:

      Based on Cao’s response letter to Bek, you can tell that he is already trying to save his own ass and throw his trainees under the bus. His repeated attempts to state that this is part of his lack of mentorship and that he had failed to supervise is to me a clear attempt to set the ground to accuse his trainees of faking data while he was not paying attention ….

    3. Benjamin Evans says:

      ok boomer

  2. Hap says:

    I thought a relevant measure of one’s power is how many people you could require to gather together spend their time listening to you, and there’s probably even more power in being able to require that they be tested on your speech afterwards. I assume actual usefulness doesn’t enter into the equation.

    Perhaps “You get what you reward” is relevant, too – if you’re busy making sure that everyone is following the company line, you probably don’t have the attention to make sure that whatever else they’re doing is accurate or useful. Probably the skill sets for vetting political opinions and scientific accuracy don’t have much overlap.

  3. Nick K says:

    China does more than metaphorically “throwing someone under a bus”. Even today, egregiously corrupt or incompetent officials can face capital punishment. Cao is right to be terrified.

  4. pc says:

    The guy you quoted, 方舟子,under the “people in China” link claimed that since he had relentless tried to expose this scandal many graduate students in China are now blaming him, since they will have harder time to fake their own papers from now on. Go figure!

  5. pc says:

    You also have to wonder in the meantime why so many institutions in the west have bestowed on him so many “honorary” titles!

    1. anon says:

      @ Reply……..currying favors!

    2. Anon says:

      For the same reason they bestowed such honours on that famous Chemist, Elena Ceaușescu….

      1. Nick K says:

        …to the eternal shame of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

  6. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    ” the government may be prepared to throw Cao under the bus, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is for that”

    Maybe “under the bicycle”? If so, we in NYC might be almost ready to adopt the new expression as well.

    1. Hap says:

      “Under the tank”? The “762MM retirement plan” might be relevant also.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Too soon.

        1. Hap says:

          Sorry. I’m not sure when it won’t be too soon.

  7. Old says:

    Derek, you left out a number of letters in your title for this interesting piece..

  8. Anon says:

    “ which suggests that the government may be prepared to throw Cao under the bus, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is for that American expression”.

    They have the same expression in China, but it’s not used as an expression. More of an actual literal punishment.

  9. ChairmanMao says:

    Just another reason to stay stateside with your research.

    I wonder how many start-ups or Pharmas in the US that use Chinese companies for research get falsified data?

    Anyone care to comment? Its probably embarrassing to the company, and the executives hush such issues up.

    1. Mister B. says:

      I cannot disclose the name of this very company we are working for, but this is the main reason they leave their chinese partner (CRO in chemistry & biology) to work with us (CRO in chemistry) and our partner (CRO in biology) in North-America.

      Our first 3 – 4 months were spend to replicate (unsuccessfully) their “positive” results.

      It seems, despite the less positive results we give them, that they are pleased with our work which seems reliable. However, we noticed quite a strict controle on our work at first, but as we proved our value, they are more confident now.

      So, I agree with you, I think there are more hidden “scandals” within the industry with falsified data.

      1. Cheena says:

        That sounds correct…the industry is not void of cheating etc…even from ancient herbal formulas…they want to patent which is known for centuries…that where I lose respect for them totally…

      2. AIC says:

        There can be plenty of reasons why results could not be duplicated between CROs. e.g. different instruments, methods that don’t match exactly, language barriers…
        If you have the right checks, orthogonal assays, and blinded controls, and you’ve done your research about the company, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about a CRO falsifying data. I’m a “western” guy (whatever that means) in a Biotech in Boston. The CROs know that the second I suspect falsification of data, several of their other clients will find out within hours and their business will be at risk. I have high confidence in the integrity and dedication of the CRO teams that I work with in China.

        1. Jack says:

          Self serving comment.

  10. Barry says:

    Cao rose high and fast in a system that values the number of publications. As Adam Smith taught us, the incentives are the system.
    Anyone whose work relies on Cao’s “findings” should be very concerned.

    1. Scott says:


      Make sure that what you are rewarding as the measure of success is actually what you want people to be doing!!!

  11. Coward says:

    Ironically, if I look at the figure being discussed in the pubpeer link to Cao’s response-to-Bik’s comment, I don’t see any problems. The original comment comment by dr. Bik is “panels (…) appear to look unexpectedly similar.” Well, they are supposed to look similar since each row shows same field of cells but at different time points along the LPS treatment!

    I have not had a chance to inspect all allegations on pubpeer against Cao, but that thread about CaMKII paper just looks bizarre. As far as I can see the sequence of events is:

    *) Elisabeth Bik is busy searching for image duplicates.
    *) She finds one, apparently does not bother reading the figure legend, posts it on pubpeer with “Could the authors please check?”
    *) Commenter #2 points out that she misunderstood.
    *) Comment #3 from Elisabeth Bik in its entirety: “Thanks for the explanation, Hoya!” Pesonally, I would have added “My bad”, and perhaps “My apologies to my peers and to the authors of the paper for wasting everyones time”. But that’s just me.
    *) Xuetao Cao post the bureaucratic apology/non-apology for a sin he has not committed in this particular instance.

    Oh well, I should be doing something productive with my time instead of getting worked up about a fracas between an American twiterrista and a Chinese bureaucrat.

    1. Smut Clyde says:

      Looking at the thread in question, it seems to me that there is a problem there… the two LPS panels are expected to be *similar*, but in fact they’re *identical*. But it would take some more work to demonstrate this.

  12. Coward says:

    @ Clyde:

    did you look at pubpeer cropped image only, or did you go to the paper, read the figure legend, looked at high-rez image, and also looked at time series in the right-most column?

    I did, and what I see in each of 3 rows, is that “Unstimulated” column and “LPS” column shows the same field of cells, roughly 4-5 minutes apart. Now, I’m but a humble biochemist, so I correct me if I’m wrong but you would expect to see pretty much exactly same view, but perhaps with different fluorescence intensities (which, after all, is the whole point of the experiment in fig 1A). Two top rows show 2-3 fold difference in fluorescence intensities. The bottom BAPTA-AM row shows no increase in fluorescence, and I see two panels that are very similar, but the image noise is not identical. What else can you possibly expect?

    1. Smut Clyde says:

      My comment comes from looking at the high-resolution image.

      1. Coward says:

        @ Clyde:

        Right-O. If I understand you correctly, we are both looking at the same figure:

        I am concluding that two BAPTA-AM panels are very similar as expected from experimental design. You on the hand contend that the panels are identical (which implies carelessness in figure preparation at best or deliberate data fabrication at worst).

        Seems like further discussion between us is unlikely to be productive, so I will stop after this comment. As a parting contribution, I processed the image to highlight what to me seem like obvious differences. Check it out here:

        Processing steps are described on imgur.

  13. Wavefunction says:

    As someone mentioned, it’s all about the incentives, and much of this involves a change in culture which is hard even if individual researchers are honest and have admirable goals. If the incentive of your research institution, your community or your country is to maximize the h- index or number of publications of researchers rather than do solid scientific work of high caliber that advances our understanding of a field, research integrity will always be a secondary concern and flashy but ultimately vacuous numbers-based accomplishments will be primary.

  14. Carol Stacy says:

    It seems Chinese universities never treat this kind of stories from “established professors” seriously. They are sick in pursuing so-called SCI numbers. PubPeer also has quite some posts against Hua Zi-chun or Hua zichun, another biomed professor at Nanjing univ, who was a candidate for the Chinese Academy of Sciences this year, for cut & paste and duplicate publication. They were never answered.

    1. Zhang says:

      So, this is not the problem only in China. I believe the journals where Hua published his paper are not Chinese journals. These journals sometimes do not bother to deal with these image issues.

      1. anonymous coward says:

        Sometimes? It’d probably be best to count the times that journals do deal with these issues. The best case scenario is “Yes, the images were manipulated, but it doesn’t affect the research conclusions (even though that’s the only evidence for the research results of interest).” The worst is likely “What manipulation? The check cleared.”

        It will not improve as authors pay for more of the articles published – why would you want to anger the people who pay you?

      2. Jack sparrow says:


  15. Jimmy says:

    Dr Cao has replied quickly and started to investigate these data. Note that it is US that always produces most fake data and biased news all over the world. Watch yourself, American jokers.

    1. zero says:

      Whether or not you are correct, that would be the expected result across a pretty wide range of duplication rates. US researchers publish a significant volume of papers (top in some fields), so it stands to reason that if the rate of fraud is equal then many US-origin papers will have problems.

      This kind of fraud is known. Many of the same people and organizations fighting research fraud (and mistakes FWIW) in the US are also looking at the same behaviors in other countries. It seems that nations who use paper counts and impact factors as performance metrics have disproportionate problems with fake or useless papers.

      An important difference is, when a high-status scientist in the US is caught committing fraud they are publicly disgraced and risk prosecution. In PRC apparently nothing happens, at least not until the evidence and international damage piles up high enough for the country to ‘forget’ someone.

      It’s still difficult to prove and very difficult to get publishers to react. There is a lot of work to do worldwide.

    2. Jack Sparow says:

      Chinese troll

    3. Jack Sparow says:

      Dream on pal.

  16. dave w says:

    Who is the “Jimmy” troll who calls us “ugly western jerk” and “American jokers”? And what is “Watch yourself” supposed to mean? Why is this poster showing up on a respectable scientific blog and saying things that sound like they’re meant to sound vaguely intimidating? (Is there a back-trace for the IP address these were posted from?)

    1. Jimmy Number 2 says:

      So you want silence him?

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Not at all. I would just like for him to be more civil.

    2. Jimmy number three says:

      and you wanna find out his IP address and who he is and then what? you are a JERK indeed………

    3. jimmy number 1.3 billion says:

      JERKS and JOKERS are everywhere, American or Chinese, french or Greek, (BTW, you just have a movie named JOKER….) Separating science from political bias is a valid point. Watch your self means you need spend sometime everyday wacthing yourself in the mirror and realize how biased you are. You need to improve! this is not mean to intimidat you, it is a friednly reminder that jerks are jerks. The only way to improve is to watch yourself more in the mirror more and medidating.

      1. Escapee says:

        Is this performance art?

        1. tally ho says:

          heavy on performance, but devoid of art

    4. Jimmy is tired of posting says:

      he is not call “us” American Jerks, he is refering you only as “Ugly western jerk”, so………..

    5. Nick K says:

      Derek should feel flattered that his blog is attracting attention from trolls in the PRC.

      1. Ken says:

        That must be a difficult job. Imagine that in two weeks Xuetao Cao is condemned as a fraud by the top echelons of the Chinese government and arrested. There’s poor Jimmy on the record, claiming that Oceania is at war with Eastasia when the party now says that Oceania has always been allied with Eastasia, and not a memory hole in sight.

        1. dave w says:

          There seems to be an infestation of them lately, on Facebook also: popping up in comment threads on postings about the Hong Kong crisis, spouting pro-regime propaganda. (And we thought the Russian ones were bad…)

          1. Jimmy the lawyer says:

            not used to hearing a different voice yourdelf too?

          2. Pete the Writer says:

            @Jimmy the Lawyer: You should have been here for the blog entry about Putin’s late hits on dissidents and exiled spies with signature weapons like Po-210 and Novichok nerve agents” Lots of different voices, mostly playing “who farted?” with signature hits on People who Pissed Putin Off.

            No one embarrased himdelf with English of substandard qualty.

          3. Jimmy the lawyer says:

            Russia is different from China. Logic, man, you need to be vigorous.

          4. jimmy like trump says:

            rigorous, trump finger again.

  17. Just Sayin says:

    Interesting coincidence today in the news:
    “A US professor of international studies who co-wrote a book about organised crime and is an expert on money laundering and corruption in South America has been arrested on charges of laundering corruption proceeds from Venezuela. Bruce Bagley, 73, of Coral Gables, Florida, was released on bail of $300,000 after appearing at Miami federal court. The University of Miami professor faces a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering and two money laundering charges. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.”

    1. Nameless says:

      He should have been given a medal for leaving his ivory tower and applying his skills in the real world.

    2. FoodScientist says:

      This is the opposite of the Cao story. Also, becoming an expert money launderer requires practice…

      1. eub says:

        He really wasn’t very skilled at it, from the news stories.

        Suggestion: when one of your money-laundering accounts gets closed down for suspicious behavior, maybe do not make a new one and do the same thing.

    3. Just respondin' says:

      When you can talk about a money-launderer who’s also the youngest general in the US Army and whose thoughts on the Wisdom of President Trump are mandatory viewing for American bankers, get back to us, fast.

  18. Jimmy posted again says:

    Soemthing about the CRO, chinese (and Indian) chemists are doing a lot of the hardwork with much lower pay and the qulity is good. That is why capitalism likes it (sorry, capitalism runs USA, and you are just a line in the excel sheets). I have been with big pharma myself, some people are lazy and the productivity is not good. I am not blaming it since it is human nature. So, if you think CRO is faking all the data, do something about it. The most usless thing is whinning….

  19. AlloG says:

    Whoa, Jimmy, “qulity is good”. That’s deep!

    We use Oracle and are data fields for ready disposal.

    1. Jimmy likes Trump says:

      I have huuuuuge fingers. it is huuuuuuge.

    2. Jimmy is crazy tonight says:

      Lets argue in Chinese, wanna try?:-)

  20. JimmyJamRecords says:

    Jimmy thinks government run research in a totalitarian state is more ethical than systems where the state can be held accountable by the voters. Jimmy likes his regimes spicy. Jimmy’s research integrity is chabuduo.

    1. Jimmy the lawyer says:

      Jimmy actually think Cao should be investigated throughly and Jimmy does not care if he will be thrown under the bus (or bicycle, or weelchair, or any moving parts). Don’t know how you get this conclusion from your logic…..

  21. changsdiscountEchinacea says:

    They push their “natural remedies” cause they’re cheap!

  22. loupgarous says:

    I used to own an anthology of scientific papers on early recombinant DNA work which had an otherwise good article by a Chinese researcher publishing in the late 1960s who led with an entire paragraph about how the paper had been guided by the thought of Chairman Mao. It was a wise genuflection to the Powers That Were during the Cultural Revolution.

    Now, Chinese scientists are being made to watch a possible scientific fraudster lecture about

    “Xi Jinping’s new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, vigorously promoting the spirit of scientists, strengthening the styles of work and study”

    – not long after the act of criticizing “Traditional Chinese Medicine” became punishable by law in China.

    Chairman Mao, for his many flaws, knew his limits – he once said his main acheivement was improving people’s lives in the area immediately surrounding Beijing. Xi Jinping doesn’t seem to have that crippling insecurity about the power of his thoughts.

  23. RKWD says:

    FYI: It’s actually Dr. Elisabeth Bik.

  24. Bella says:

    I have worked in both Chinese lab and British lab before so that I am qualified to talk about it. I personally admire scientists are strict with ethical problems. Indeed, western countries are doing better that Asians. However, may we look at the improvement in those problems? I have seen Chinese scientists got fired and never came back to academia because of misconduct (specifically adding authors who did not contribute to the paper once) and generally most scientists hate them. I think Chinese scientist are on their way to solve this problem, so would you mind giving them some time?

    Again, please think before judging.

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