Chinese Alzheimers research may be example of academic ‘black market’

by Margaret Munro
Some of Canada’s top brain specialists have apparently been duped by shady operators in China.
The Canadian doctors approved and recently published a scientific report on Alzheimer’s disease that came from a “flourishing” academic black market in China, according to a report released Thursday.

“China’s publication bazaar,” as it is described, allows unscrupulous scientists to pay big money — up to  $26,300 — to become authors of scientific papers they didn’t write.
They don’t do any experiments or research either, according to the report in the U.S. journal Science that adds a creative, if disturbing, twist to research misconduct.

“It’s new to me,” says Dr. Robert Chen, at the University of Toronto, who is now investigating the origins of the suspect Alzheimer’s report.
It surfaced last year in China’s “flourishing academic black market involving shady agencies, corrupt scientists and compromised editors — many of them operating in plain view,” according to Science. It says that several scientific papers advertised under “authorship for sale” by Chinese brokers and editing shops have later appeared in established journals — including the Alzheimer’s report published this year in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences.

The  “internationally recognized” peer-reviewed publication is published by the Canadian Neurological Sciences Federation and edited by some of the Canada’s leading brain and neurology researchers. The suspect paper was submitted last November, reviewed by Canadian neuroscientists and accepted and published as an “original article.”

Chen, a U of T medical professor and brain-imaging specialist who became editor-in-chief of the journal in July,  has asked the Chinese authors to clarify their contributions. He says he’s “suspicious,” but says he wants to give the Chinese authors a chance to respond.

Chen says the scientific information in the report appears to be valid. “The issue is the authors, did they actually do the work,” he says.
The report, about a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease, lists eight Chinese co-authors from Shandong University. In a lengthy email to Postmedia News this week, lead author JianZhong Bi adamantly denies any wrongdoing. “Neither I nor other authors paid to add our names as authors on the paper,”  Bi says.

A team at Science says it first spotted the Alzheimer’s report in August 2012.  It says it was one of 12 papers advertised under “authorship for sale” by Core Editing, one of several blogs offering academic services in China.

As part of  an investigation into “paper selling,” contributing editor Mara Hvistendahl and her team posed as graduate students and scientists. They approached 27 Chinese editing companies about purchasing authorship of a scientific paper or paying the company to write a paper for them. Only five of the companies refused, says the team, which found “authorship fees” ranging from $1,600 to $26,300.
The black market offers not only “an author’s slot” on papers written by other scientists, “but also self-plagiarizing by translating a paper already published in Chinese and resubmitting it in English; hiring a ghostwriter to compose a paper from faked or independently gathered data; or simply buying a paper from an online catalogue of manuscripts — often with a guarantee of publication,” the team says.

Academic publishing is big business and a big preoccupation for academics around the world, who churn out papers and research reports for publication in thousands of journals. The number of papers from China has soared from 41,417 in 2002 to 193,733 in 2012, making it second in volume to the United States.
Publishing in journals — especially those with international credibility — is often key to academic promotion and is seen as critical in China.

“People are sparing no expense in order to get published in international journals,” Fan Dongsheng, a neurologist and former vice-president of Peking University Third Hospital, told Science.

Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, writes in an editorial accompanying the Science report that “an unhealthy research environment in China” is being driven by several factors, including competitive grants and measuring merit on quantity of work. This “can lure young scientists to climb the academic ladder by stepping outside ethical boundaries,” Yang says.

Toronto’s Chen, who has studied in Hong Kong, the U.K, and the U.S., says he and his colleagues had never heard of paper selling until alerted by Science. And he and a leading Canadian publishing expert say the revelations add a new dimension to academic misconduct.
“Wow, this is new to me,” Michel Duquet, president elect of the Canadian Association of Learned Journals, said in an interview. The association represents almost 100 academic journals from the Canadian Medical Association Journal to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

“I am amazed that any author would add a name for any amount of money because it affects their reputation in the long run,” Duquet said.
While the focus may be on China this week there has long been concern about research misconduct in other countries. Revelations that pharmaceutical companies were “ghostwriting” papers for doctors has prompted leading medical journals to require authors to detail their involvement in the research when submitting papers. Chen says his journal might follow their lead.

And earlier this year it was revealed that more than 100 scientific journals accepted a bogus, error-filled cancer study for publication in a sting organized by John Bohannon, a science journalist at Harvard University. Bohannon shopped the fake study around to reveal what he called the “Wild West” of pay-to-publish outlets.

Duquet also points to problems with the proliferation of online journals. “Some journals, as long as they have the money they could care less about what is published in their journals,” he says.


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