PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

South China Morning Post, Jan 31, 2010

 

The lie detector

BY PAUL MOONEY

On January 16, Fang Shimin kicked off the new year with a recap of his top 10 news items of 2009. On his popular New Threads blog (www.xys.org), Fang, both respected and hated as the mainland's self-appointed 'science cop', revisited a string of startling allegations: 12 university presidents and vice-presidents accused of plagiarism; a university president who claim- ed a leading scientific prize that was not right- fully his; two professors caught faking research results in an international journal; and a medical doctor who distorted the success rate for a new surgical procedure, which could have had serious health implications.

Fang's rogue's gallery made it seem like every time a light bulb goes on in the head of a genuine genius, there's a mainland scientist at hand to steal the idea and bask in the illicit glory, but the list came as no surprise to followers of the blog. For close to a decade, Fang, who goes by the pen name Fang Zhouzi, has been using the site to battle academic corruption, which, some say, has become so endemic on the mainland, it poses a threat to the country's development. 

Fang, who earned a PhD in biochemistry from Michigan State University, in the United States, in 1995, became concerned about the phenomenon in 2000, when he started to see an increase in reports of academic cheating on the internet and in the print media. A fan of literature, Fang had a literary website called New Threads, which he has since employed to expose academic fraud. 

'I care about science in China,' he says, sitting in a Beijing cafe. 'I want to see it go somewhere. [Academic fraud] is more common [here] than in any other country and more common than in any other period in Chinese history.'

A survey conducted by the China Association for Science and Technology showed more than half of the scientists contacted said they were personally familiar with cases of scientific misconduct. However, few of the guilty parties are punished and that's what irks Fang, whose training in the US exposed him to a system in which plagiarism is rare and, when it does occur, is severely punished.

Shen Yang, an associate professor at the Information Management School of Wuhan University, pioneered software that detects plagiarism in university papers, but the will to implement such innovation has yet to surface.

Fang says that out of the more than 900 cases of academic corruption he has exposed only 20 have resulted in punishment - and the majority of those involved students.

New Threads receives about 100,000 hits a week, with close to 16 million people - academics and students primarily but also journalists - having visited it during the past nine years. The government occasionally blocks access, forcing users to reach it via mirror sites.

'New Threads is the news source for the vast majority of science journalists in China, including myself,' says Fang Xuanchang (no relation to Fang Shimin), a reporter with Science News.  'Actually, the vast majority of the cases of academic corruption that were brought to light by the media in recent years were originally exposed by contributors to the New Threads blog,' says the journalist, who calls the site the 'New Threads deep throat', in reference to the informant in the US' Watergate scandal.

Fang Shimin says he gets more than 20 e-mails a day reporting academic corruption and he spends an average of four hours fol- lowing up on the claims. He says he applies strict criteria in handling reports: accusers must provide their name - many decline to do this out of fear of retribution; concrete evidence must be provided; and the case must be relevant. Fang often does his own research, sometimes consulting with experts in fields he is less familiar with.

Academic corruption runs the gamut from false claims about international awards to outright intellectual-property theft. No less than 16 Chinese scholars have claimed to have won the prestigious Albert Einstein World Award of Science since it was launched in 1984. For some years, more than one mainland scientist has claimed the award, despite that fact that it is given to only to one person a year. A search of the recipients list on the website of the World Cultural Council - the body that bestows the honour - yields not one Chinese name.

In 2006, when Fang, acting on a tip, pored over the online resume of the new assistant dean of Tsinghua University's medical school, he became suspicious when he noticed that one of the research papers it listed was about the molecular biology of HIV - a subject not related to the dean's speciality: surgery. Fang dug a bit further and discovered that the paper had been written by a Chinese scientist in the US with the same family name and first initial. He also discovered the professor had lied about his work experience. 

Fang argued that Xiao Chuanguo, professor of urology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, had lied about winning a major award given by the American Urological Association and questioned the success rate of a new surgical procedure being touted by Xiao. The doctor failed in two attempts to be appointed to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and scholars credit New Threads for this. 

Fang says that prior to the 1990s, the government had tight control on science and research and managed to keep a lid on cheating.

'After reform and opening, the controls were relaxed, and that was a good thing,' he says. 'We don't want the government controlling everything. But the side effect was that corruption and misconduct emerged.'

Critics say government efforts to modernise the higher-education system are exacerbating the problem. The Ministry of Education and universities put pressure on academics to publish in journals catalogued by the Science Citation Index. School rankings, funding and monetary rewards are often based on such results.

A PhD candidate has to publish at least three papers before he can graduate, says Fang, and many graduate students are also required to publish. 'That's huge, particularly for someone in biology or medicine,' says Fang. 

The publish-or-perish phenomenon has even extended to people teaching at junior colleges and high schools. But as more papers need to be published than can be accommodated by the country's key journals - the numbers run close to 500,000 per year - the trend has spawned a raft of low-quality 'black journals', in which people pay to have their papers published. 

'It's become a huge industry,' says Fang. 'And no one trusts the papers published in this kind of journal. It's just for promotion.' 

The pressure to publish has meant scholars churn out papers, often paying little attention to the quality of research or even lifting information from other sources without giving attribution. In many cases, professors allow their graduate students to do their research. If the student plagiarises, the professor pleads ignorance.

One of the problems, as Fang sees it, is that the fear of being caught is no disincentive.

'No one cares because the majority of scientists are involved in misconduct,' he says. 'So they don't think it's a big deal. You don't need to worry about being caught or punished.'

Officials bear some of the blame, too, says Fang. 

'The officials who have the power to distri- bute funding for research know nothing about science,' he says. 'They only know how to count the number of academic papers one has published. You only have to copy other peoples' papers and they say, 'You've done a good job, here's your funding.''

Universities and the government are often reluctant to punish cheaters, especially high-level scientists or someone who has Communist Party connections, which means just about any senior academic official.

'Government officials don't want to investigate and punish a vice-president or a president of a university because there's nothing in it for them,' says Fang. 

Universities will usually try to cover up such behaviour to protect the reputation of the institution. CAS members bring in large amounts of funding for their universities, Fang says. His website has exposed the misdeeds of about 20 members of the academy but none has been officially investigated or punished, he says.

He Shigang, of the CAS' Institute of Biophysics and a supporter of Fang, says: 'Everything boils down to the political system. If the political system is corrupted you can't have a clean environment for anything.' 

'[Although the number is rising slightly] what appears in the media is a very small minority of the cases,' says Fang Xuanchang. 'Journalists have to consider whether or not there's a risk in reporting something. As a result, many cases go unreported.'

THERE'S A LONG history of scholarly cheating in China. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), scholars taking the rigorous imperial exam, to win coveted positions in the civil service, resort- ed to all sorts of tricks, including smuggling in miniature books, cheat sheets the size of a fingernail and even undershirts covered with relevant information. 

In 1964, Mao Zedong went so far as to endorse cheating during a speech in which he criticised the staid education system and its emphasis on exams. 

'At examinations, whispering into each other's ears and taking other people's places ought to be allowed,' he declared. 'If your answer is good and I copy it, then mine should be counted as good.' 

Cheating is also rampant among students. In recent years, qiangshou, or 'hired guns', have been employed to take exams. Their services can be retained for just about any test on the mainland, including English language exams. One now-defunct website offered three options: a hired gun for 2,000 yuan (HK$2,275), answers in advance for 4,000 yuan or, for 1,200 yuan, answers provided during the test via a wireless device described as an imported 'satellite receiver' no bigger than a thumbnail. 

Fang says he makes no money from his blog, relying instead on the popular science books he writes to earn a living. 

Eleven lawsuits have been brought against the crusader: courts ruled against him in three cases and dismissed five, while three are pending. 

Xiao sued Fang for libel in a local court in Wuhan, Hubei province, where he teaches, winning the case and an appeal. Fang ignored the ruling and, last year, the court deducted 40,763 yuan from his wife's bank account.

Some of the legal cases have bordered on the absurd. In November 2006, the family of scholar Liu Zihua sued Fang for libel. In the 30s, Liu argued that he had used the Eight Diagrams theory - from ancient Chinese philosophy - to discover a 10th planet in the solar system, a claim Fang labelled 'pseudoscience'. The No 2 Beijing Intermediary Court ruled against Fang, fining him 20,000 yuan - despite the fact that Liu had passed away 14 years earlier.

Fang's legal setbacks are the result of politics, local cronyism and a flawed legal system, claims He. 'I think he does his homework very carefully. That's the reason I respect him so much.'

Supporters have set up a legal defence fund to defray his court costs as well as another website to fight his detractors.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern that academic cheating could adversely affect the development of education and science on the mainland. Fang says international academic journals are now reluctant to accept submissions from Chinese scholars, a problem that was highlighted last month when scientific journal Acta Crystallographica Sections E published an editorial announcing that some 70 crystal structures submitted by two scientists from Jinggangshan University, in Jiangxi, in 2007, had been faked.

Cao Cong, a senior research associate with the Neil D Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce at the State University of New York, wrote this month that the peer-reviewed journal had been flooded with Chinese papers, ostensibly because it's just a database of crystal structures in which articles are usually one page long and go through a less-than-vigorous review process. Cao wrote that one chemistry professor at Heilongjiang University had submitted 297 papers to Acta Crystallographica over the past five years.

The incident attracted the attention of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of medical journal The Lancet, who wrotethat rewarding Chinese scholars for being prolific publishers was creating problems.

'In China, unfortunately, there are great incentives to commit fraud,' he wrote on The Lancet's website. 'When you make prestigious jobs and large amounts of money closely tied to publication, that creates conditions for fraud.

'The concern is if science in China cannot be trusted in certain areas, that undermines China's economic growth.'

'Academic corruption is an incredible waste of taxpayer money,' says Fang Xuanchang. 'Furthermore, this general trend of corruption in scholarly circles will lead to a decline in the efficacy of scientific research and seriously obstruct China's dream of internationalising.'

While on the surface it appears New Threads has had limited success, 'without Fang Shimin, academic corruption in China would have been worse', says Rao Yi, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. 

'Fang's goal of fighting academic misconduct should not be simply reduced to the number of people who are punished,' says Fang Xuanchang. 'The more important thing is making those potential cheaters afraid, which has resulted in reducing the emergence of this phenomenon within the academic world.'

Fang Shimin says the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) have both laid down guidelines for dealing with academic misconduct but he doubts they will be enforced. MoST set up the Office of Scientific Research Integrity in 2007, he says, but he's not heard of the office investigating a single case. He also contends that some MoST officials are corrupt and accept kickbacks for handing out research funding.

'There's an office at least,' he says, optimistically. 'The government now recognises that it's a problem - and although it hasn't done anything, I think that's progress.'

'No one cares because the majority of scientists are involved in misconduct'