Badly reviewed

More scandal in academia


But how many are fake?

A 3,000-word paper titled The Conceptual Penis As A Social Construct was published this month by Cogent Social Sciences, a leading peer-reviewed academic journal on gender studies. The paper’s authors argue that the “poststructuralist discourse” on the male sexual organ seems to have a strong correlation with climate change. Several academic experts were asked to review the work, with one describing the piece as “outstanding”.

The jargon-laden piece, in fact, was just a hoax paper submitted by two American academics attempting to expose the absurdity of certain aspects of social science studies.

The Chinese appear to be equally apt in exploiting the loopholes in academic publishing, although not just for fun.

Springer, a publisher of academic journals, recently announced it has retracted 107 articles published in Tumour Biology, an open access journal on experimental and clinical cancer research, between 2012 and 2016 as part of an investigation into academic fraud. The majority of these articles were submitted by Chinese authors. It is the single largest retraction Springer has issued to date.

Last year Springer also withdrew 60 essays which were primarily submitted by authors from the Middle East, suggesting academic fraud is hardly limited to China. However, data from RetractionWatch – a blog that follows retractions from scientific papers – shows that in the field of fraudulent peer reviews China ranks first, with 276 papers retracted between 2012 and 2016.

Peer-reviewed journals such as Cogent Social Sciences and Tumour Biology rely upon academics to protect the publication’s integrity by validating submissions for inclusion. However, when the topic is particularly niche, the South China Morning Post reports, the author of the paper might suggest to the editor who they should contact for validation. In these instances, fraud is more easily achieved, says the SCMP.

According to Sina News, the preferred method of these Chinese authors is to provide the editors with the names of genuine experts, but then provide the publication with false email addresses for them. Then when the editor makes contact and requests a peer review, the fraudsters can respond themselves.

The 107 retractions from Tumour Biology implicated over 500 researchers and doctors across China, involving a number of hospitals which are attached to prestigious universities, such as Shanghai Jiaotong University and Fudan University.

For Chinese doctors, publishing in international journals is a prerequisite for gaining promotions, pay rises, and funding. Sina suggests this creates a pressure that drives medical professionals to produce fraudulent work. One scientist told the SCMP: “I understand they are busy treating patients. They do not have time to do proper research, but to pass the government’s evaluation they must come up with some papers. But the external pressure should not become an excuse to cheat. If we cannot count on them for credible research, we cannot count on them to save lives.”

The SCMP reports that another racket in China is to charge doctors to cite their work in phoney academic journals, which gives their research superficial credibility. Last year 78 fraudsters were arrested in connection with a scam of this sort, implicating around 2,000 doctors.

But it isn’t just doctors cheating: academic fraud is rife amongst college students too. According to an article on Sohu, the industry for academic ghostwriters is worth over Rmb1 billion ($145.7 million), with companies charging up to Rmb1,000 for a degree level essay, Rmb10,000 for an MA-level essay and Rmb70,000 for a PhD paper.

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