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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 30, 2013

They'll Fake the Journal if You'll Fake the Papers

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Posted by Derek

The Economist has a disturbing article on the extent of academic publishing fraud in China. It's disturbing that it goes on so much, and should be disturbing that it's in The Economist:

DISGUISED as employees of a gas company, a team of policemen burst into a flat in Beijing on September 1st. Two suspects inside panicked and tossed a plastic bag full of money out of a 15th-floor window. Red hundred-yuan notes worth as much as $50,000 fluttered to the pavement below.

Money raining down on pedestrians was not as bizarre, however, as the racket behind it. China is known for its pirated DVDs and fake designer gear, but these criminals were producing something more intellectual: fake scholarly articles which they sold to academics, and counterfeit versions of existing medical journals in which they sold publication slots.

As China tries to take its seat at the top table of global academia, the criminal underworld has seized on a feature in its research system: the fact that research grants and promotions are awarded on the basis of the number of articles published, not on the quality of the original research. . .

If there's one thing that economists are sure of, it's that you get what you subsidize (even if you might not have realized up front just what it was you were paying for). And if the Chinese establishment has decided that long publications lists are necessary, then long publication lists they shall have. The same thing happens in a drug research department when management is so foolish as to reward people for sheer number of compounds submitted - you get a deluge of amides, sulfonamides, and methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile coupling reactions. One half of the stockroom gets mixed with the other half, in the presence of HATU and/or palladiu, and voila, productivity on a shingle.

At least those are real componds. Apparently, many of the papers being generated under the Chinese onslaught are not just repetitious, bite-sized chunklets of stretched-out lab results, but flat-out fantasies:

The pirated medical-journal racket broken up in Beijing shows that there is a well-developed market for publication beyond the authentic SCI journals. The cost of placing an article in one of the counterfeit journals was up to $650, police said. Purchasing a fake article cost up to $250. Police said the racket had earned several million yuan ($500,000 or more) since 2009. Customers were typically medical researchers angling for promotion.

And this makes you wonder how many of the people doing the evaluating also knew, or suspected, that these journals were fakes, but had reasons of their own to pretend otherwise. Something needs to be done about all this, clearly, but that's not going to be possible without a lot of disruption. The longer it goes on, though, the worse that disruption might be. . .

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. ROGI on September 30, 2013 8:50 AM writes...

Nothing new.

Back in the '70's when I was a callow grad student, and at times later in my career out of sheer desiperation, I would CAS what I needed and found the "solution" in Soviet journals (English translation). What a wad of crap. Eventually I figured out that I was all about the numbers. The director of the Outer Siberian Socialist Collective Institute needed to meet his 5 Year Plan goals. These places were paper mills. Same old, same old.

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2. simpl on September 30, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

how much for a doctorate?

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3. Mike on September 30, 2013 9:34 AM writes...

I know that there is some very good science done in China, but my impression is that anything of real value gets published in American or western European journals. I'd like to ask chemists or other scientists here a question. To what extent do you trust scientific reports published in Chinese journals? For example, how would you compare your trust level to Indian, South American, or eastern European journals?

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4. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 9:50 AM writes...

It's interesting that when there are cases of scientific fraud among westerners, other westerners are quick to attach a bad label on specific institutions, research groups or even individual investigators. But when there are cases of scientific fraud among the Chinese, westerners are quick to attach a bad label on the entire academic community and culture of China!

So much for objective rational scientific thinking. As Daniel Kahneman has noted, we are all subject to prejudice, and a lot less objective and rational than we would like to think!

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5. NMH on September 30, 2013 10:33 AM writes...

In light of the fact that Chinese workers get paid extra money for publications that get into western journals with high citation indexes ( I dont trust any paper where work is mostly done in mainland China, whether it is published in a Chinese or Western journal.

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6. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 10:39 AM writes...

@2: Why not just buy a doctorate from one of the many dubious western institutions?

@5: Don't exactly the same incentives exist for western scientists?

So much hypocrisy and prejudice!

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7. anon the II on September 30, 2013 10:41 AM writes...

I'm shocked and aghast and all that but isn't this exactly the same thing that Elesevier did for Merck a few years back.

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8. Anonymous on September 30, 2013 10:42 AM writes...

PS. At least the chinese police are doing something about this. What about western police? Are they clamping down on scientific fraud and corruption?

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9. Anon on September 30, 2013 11:07 AM writes...

Look at the western investments in China's pharma space over the last 5-10 can't say this didn't help "them" accomplish this.

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10. a. nonymaus on September 30, 2013 11:21 AM writes...

Re: 3
If it's a very strange claim, I'd doubt it no matter whether it's in JACS or written on an outhouse in Kyrgyzstan. That said, it also depends on what field and era. I've read some great eastern European crystallography/materials papers, Iran has made good contributions in solid-supported reagents that I've found to be reproducible, Indian heterogeneous catalysis chemistry can involve a good amount of salami-slicing when published but seems to be reproducible. One thing to keep in mind when reading the Indian literature, especially from previous decades, is that a reaction run at "room temperature" may need slight heating to get the same results in temperate climes.
Re: 4, 6, 8...
It's the difference between a paper-cut and a bullet wound. The western police are effective, and so they have less to do.
Re: 7
Elsevier delenda est.

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11. Tom on September 30, 2013 12:01 PM writes...

"methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile coupling reactions" - a lovely gag, which all too cuttingly describes many an unproductive week of bumbling in the labyrinth.

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12. Brett on September 30, 2013 12:16 PM writes...

That's pretty wild - a double-layered publication scam. You sell them the fake article, and then sell them the fake journal slot to publish it in.

@Derek Lowe
And this makes you wonder how many of the people doing the evaluating also knew, or suspected, that these journals were fakes, but had reasons of their own to pretend otherwise.

That would have to be the case, because the evaluators could always get a verifiably real copy of the real Journal and see if the fake article showed up in the table of contents. The fact that they were successfully selling fake journal slots of real scientific journals means that whoever was checking them was doing a cursory job at best - assuming they weren't just being bribed to take them.

It's interesting that when there are cases of scientific fraud among westerners, other westerners are quick to attach a bad label on specific institutions, research groups or even individual investigators. But when there are cases of scientific fraud among the Chinese, westerners are quick to attach a bad label on the entire academic community and culture of China!

No, Lowe only pointed out that the Chinese scientific establishment was reaping what it sowed when it made long publication lists the standard of whether or not researchers in China would get money. It was not a malignment of every researcher in China, or Chinese culture.

You should have read the post more properly, instead of knee-jerk reacting to an imaginary slight on China.

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13. Anon on September 30, 2013 12:18 PM writes...


No, it is not the same at all. In the Merck/Elsevier situation, all the science was high quality studies first published in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Elsevier just packaged the studies to be reprinted as a collection in special "journals" that were created for that purpose. There was nothing fake or unethical about the science itself, but rather there were ethical problems in the misleading way that it was subsequently repackaged.

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14. Ted on September 30, 2013 12:46 PM writes...

The OP was right on the money--this is not about nationalist or racist stereotyping, it is just a vivid, if somewhat bizzar, illustration of one of the most foundmental economic principles. If you are a Freakanomics fan, you probably have heard about the stories of how government incentives to kill cobra snakes caused drastic INCREASE of its population because people started farming them(in India?), and how local officials' monetary reward for killing wild boars by submitting their tails resulted wide fraudulant turning in domestic pig tails (West Virginia?)...

Are scientists--no matter which part of the world you are from--immune to this because they have a higher education or moral standards than the rest of population?? Do people brought up in communism or atheism countries have a lower barrier to moral corruption than those from a democratic and god-fearing environment??


I forgot which philosopher once said about why we are here (paraphrasing here): mine is to help the others...but I have no idea why the others are here :-).

Being suspicious of those who look or sound differently from us is just who we are. We are, after all, just naked apes.

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15. interested reader on September 30, 2013 1:03 PM writes...

Is this really any different from what happens in Western journals? The high impact journals demand perfect data for their publications, and publication in high impact journals is required to get grants- particularly in today's insane environment where the paylines are around 10%. Given that most scientists in academia are dependent on grants for their livelihood, don't you think that it's obvious that there will be an enormous amount of "perfect" data generated in response. The Chinese are just more open about their incentives, but the fundamental problem is the same.

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16. Souza on September 30, 2013 2:38 PM writes...

Re: 3

Please do not compare South America with China. We are away from them in terms of ethics.

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17. Mike on September 30, 2013 4:08 PM writes...

Who is "we"? Are you saying that South Americans are more ethical than Chinese, or something else? Please elaborate.

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18. gippgig on September 30, 2013 5:40 PM writes...

This is the problem with turning scientific research into a business instead of an intellectual pursuit.

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19. samadamsthedog on September 30, 2013 8:47 PM writes...

@18: You bet. Don't you miss the days when science was too esoteric to be good for anything?

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20. zDNA on October 1, 2013 8:51 AM writes...

Government funding of science, no matter where, causes distortions and misallocations. The fact that the western world makes it run a bit smoother is no reason to laud them at the expense of the Chinese. They're just trying to catch up to our level of subtle chicanery, after all.

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21. MikeC on October 3, 2013 5:50 PM writes...

If fake articles in fake journals are in the offing, might as well go all in and fake the date as well. An opportunity to "invent" something two years before the patent was submitted could be pretty lucrative. At the very least you could win all of those Article One Partners prior art search competitions, at the most you could invalidate your competitors' patents. Before getting sued into bankruptcy, that is.

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