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.