China called on to ensure researchers' scientific integrity after UK-based journal is forced to retract dozens of Chinese papers with falsified data

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

The Chinese government is being called on to do more to ensure the scientific integrity of its researchers after UK-based journal Acta Crystallographica Section E  was forced to retract dozens of papers describing over 70 crystal structures found to have been fabricated by Chinese researchers.

In response to the discovery, the UK medical journal The Lancet  last week published a damning editorial under the headline ’Scientific fraud: action needed in China’, explicitly calling for the country’s government to act to prevent future cases of scientific fraud. 

"Our work is ongoing and it is likely that this figure will rise further" - Acta Crystallographica Section E editorial

Peter Strickland, managing editor of International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Journals, which publishes Acta Crystallographica Section E, tells Chemistry World: ’The present situation emphasizes the need for structure-factor deposition and for ongoing vigilance.   Important lessons have been learnt by the journal and the scientific community will learn that fraudulent practices will not go undetected.’ 

The journal revealed the fraud in its own editorial published online on 19 December, saying it involved papers published principally during 2007 with falsified structures from two groups led by Hua Zhong and Tao Liu, both from Jinggangshan University, China. Co-authors included other colleagues from Jinggangshan University and other institutions in China.

’Both these correspondence authors and all co-authors have signed forms agreeing to the retraction of 41 papers published by Dr Zhong and 29 by Professor Liu,’ the editorial stated, adding that other possible falsifications are being investigated beyond the 70 already found. ’Our work is ongoing and it is likely that this figure will rise further.’ 

’This incident is not the first time that scientific fraud has occurred in China,’ The Lancet editorial claimed, adding: ’Clearly, China’s Government needs to take this episode as a cue to reinvigorate standards for teaching research ethics and for the conduct of research itself, as well as establishing robust and transparent procedures for handling allegations of scientific misconduct to prevent further instances of fraud.’

Strickland declined to comment on The Lancet editorial, or on whether the journal has been in contact with Chinese government officials during its inquiry, saying: ’Our investigations have concentrated on making sure that the crystallography in the articles is corrected.’ 

’This is the first time that we have discovered the publication of fraudulent papers in IUCr Journals,’ Strickland added. ’The discovery was only possible because IUCr Journals archive the raw experimental data (structure factors), something that we have been urging other chemical journals to do. And from this data, combined with the new software, we were able to detect the fraud.’