Chinese Scientist Confess to Unethical Research Practices Under Pressure

asian biotechnology scientist team take test tube to conduct experiments in the laboratory

According to a study, Chinese scientists were under pressure to participate in unethical research methods because they feared their jobs depended on it.

The startling finding is unearthed in a series of in-depth, anonymous interviews with several dozen researchers that provide uncommon, first-hand experiences. The researchers explain what ultimately pushed them over the line. 

The journal Research Ethics1 published the findings in April.

The University of Hong Kong’s Zhang Xinqu, a sociologist, and Wang Peng, a criminologist, who conducted the interview, both contend that researchers felt pressured—even encouraged—to commit indiscretions to prevent getting canned. 

They argue that the ultimate source of this pressure was a Chinese initiative to establish colleges with international renown. Some Chinese universities claim that the initiative inspired them to develop aggressive publishing goals.

Under the 2015 “Double First-Class Scheme,” institutions were urged to produce more articles in foreign journals in order to improve their worldwide rankings. The scientific magazine Nature claims that a faculty head advised professors to pack their things if they failed to reach publishing objectives.

The academics acknowledged plagiarizing, falsifying data, stealing student work without attribution, and even bribing journal editors. Other Chinese scientists, however, claimed the paper’s author only addressed a tiny sample of academics and that it presented an unduly harsh picture.

Since 2017, Chinese universities have produced more scientific articles than those in any other nation, in part because scholars there are compensated on volume rather than quality. China accounts for around 46% of the 50,000 or so retracted studies that CrossRef and Retraction Watch have compiled. According to a professor from Hangzhou Dianzi University who spoke with the interviewers, university executives are often government officials who excel at pursuing goals but struggle to support sound science. 

The issue, however, might not be exclusive to China. According to a 2023 study, low-quality research was encouraged by the UK’s performance-based funding allocation system, with articles written right before assessment deadlines appearing in lower-impact publications and obtaining fewer citations.