Chinese funders ‘must act in concert’ to curb research misconduct

Agencies must agree on ‘demarcation line’ for questionable behaviour and mete out consistent punishment, Science paper says

March 4, 2022
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Recent years have seen Chinese institutions produce a growing share of global academic output. But alongside that success, research misconduct has also grown rampant.

If the country wants to tackle the problem, its funders will need to act in unison and draw a hard line to identify and punish cheaters, according to a researcher whose article appears in the journal Science.

Li Tang, a professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in China, writes that funders will need to “achieve consensus and draft measures to decide the gradients of misconducts and degrees of sanctions” if they are to address the problem.

Efforts to stamp out misconduct are still in a “nascent phase” in China because funding agencies have limited sanction tools and lack the time and money it takes to go after misconduct cases.

In the paper, Professor Tang notes that between 2011 and 2020, funding applications to China’s National Natural Science Foundation grew by 9 per cent on average annually, while its staffing increased by 3.7 per cent in that time. In 2020, the agency received 281,200 grant applications; that year, it opened 525 misconduct cases and sanctioned 165 researchers.

“Inundated with mounting grant applications, short-staffed public funding agencies are inclined to support innovative research proposals rather than to oversee, investigate, and sanction funding-related misconducts,” he writes.

But the issue also stems from the fact that funders – primarily public ones, which account for most of China’s research funding – are not marching in step.

“Different agencies and awardee organisations have not reached an agreement on the demarcation line between research ethics and integrity, questionable research practices and research misconducts,” according to Professor Tang.

To deal effectively with offences and develop a consistent approach that does not wax and wane with media attention into misconduct cases, the funders must collectively agree on the “punitive scope and severity for [principal investigators in research] and accessories involved in proven misconducts”, he writes.

Speaking with Times Higher Education, Professor Tang said that – bar issues of understaffing and increased workloads – Chinese funding agencies have ample incentive to quash misconduct.

“Research funders all over the world do not want public money squandered or misused under their administration; and China is no exception.”

And already, there are signs that the country’s government is closing in on offenders.

China’s Ministry of Education is taking steps to detect plagiarism of university graduates’ theses, which in turn impacts the funding allocated to universities, noted Professor Tang. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have been designated to manage scientific misconduct investigations and rulings in science and social sciences.

“The co-drafting of anti-misconduct policies and measures across different government agencies is a clear sign for cross-sector synchronisation,” said Professor Tang, adding that China’s top-down structure “facilitates” coordination between agencies.

Even so, Professor Tang warned, the Chinese science grant system alone is “insufficient to reduce funding-relevant research fraud”.

He emphasised that integrity education and training in social science research, “which [has been] sidelined for a long time”, should also be considered.

“Reinforcing research integrity…must be systematic and involve orchestrated efforts of different stakeholders across the whole spectrum of scientific exploration.”

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