The fact that Chinese scientists and medical practitioners need to get published in SCI-indexed journals to get ahead in their field has spawned an international multimillion-dollar industry which includes ghostwriting companies and international publications which are happy to publish papers as long as writers pay their publication fees.
In August, Berlin-based publisher Springer pulled 64 articles from 10 of its journals after finding evidence of faked peer reviews, nearly all of them by Chinese academics. In March 2015, London-based BioMed Central retracted 43 papers for faking peer reviews, 41 of them by Chinese researchers.
Scandals involving plagiarism and publication ethics have been plaguing Chinese academia for a long time. A recent expose by Plagiarism Watch, a US-based website that monitors academic plagiarism, is the latest to further reveal the murky side of the Chinese academic world.
Through an anonymous tip, Plagiarism Watch's editors found that 11 papers published in a variety of journals from 2014 to 2016, all written by Chinese authors from different organizations, featured similar figures or tables. Among them, six papers were published in the same Brazilian journal, Genetics and Molecular Research (GMR), which has a low impact factor of 0.764 - impact factors are used to measure the relative importance of a journal in its field. In comparison, the impact factor of the prestigious Nature magazine was 38.138 in 2015.
Plagiarism Watch believes there is a third-party ghostwriting company (or companies) behind the suspicious papers, since almost all of the authors use similar features or tricks in the articles, and some of the articles were published in the same month.
The website also found that in 2015 alone, GMR published 1,605 papers by Chinese authors, about 78.1 percent of all its articles.
"This journal comes from a place very far away from China, but why it is so popular in China, with 78.1 percent Chinese-authored papers published in 2015, but with a very low impact factor of 0.764?" a post on Plagiarism Watch reads.
After Plagiarism Watch posted its discovery, Xu Peiyang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences did further research on GMR, and what he found startled him.
Xu found that since it was launched in 2002, the journal has published 3,646 papers from China, accounting for 54.9 percent of its total publication.
"As an international journal, how can it possibly be publishing so many articles from China?" Xu questions.
The Science Citation Index (SCI) is an important database that covers over 3,700 journals, and due to its rigorous selection process for journals, Chinese organizations encourage and value publications on SCI-indexed journals.
But some SCI-indexed journals like GMR are tapping into the Chinese market by charging a publication fee and neglecting to properly review the articles.
GMR responded to the Southern Weekly's questions on this topic by claiming that they have noticed a boom in the number of papers submitted by Asian authors, especially young Chinese researchers, since the second half of 2010. However, the journal spokesperson justified the boom, saying it is because academic organizations and funding projects in developing countries require researchers to publish many articles in SCI-indexed journals, but the number of international journals are not able to fulfill the demand.
GMR said the journal did detect some plagiarism in the beginning of 2016. "Our editors and reviewers found that many authors published multiple papers on the same research. They copy and paste data, models, sentences, and even paste large chunks of texts of published papers into their own papers," GMR told the Southern Weekly.
The journal said ghostwriting companies have made it technically difficult for them to spot plagiarism, which is why they were unaware of the problems for a long time. On October 7, GMR's website shows that it has retracted the papers in question.
In fact, Genetics and Molecular Research is not the only journal which has been dominated by Chinese authors. Xu found that over 75 percent of the papers published by Molecular Medicine Reports, a Greek journal with a 1.559 impact factor, and over 80 percent of the papers used by the US-based International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine are written by Chinese authors.
All these journals are open-access journals, which means they are either financed by an institution or by article processing charges paid by submitting authors. On average, these journals charge between $1,350 to $2,250 to publish an article.
Cheng Weihong, a reviewer at the Crop Journal published by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, once attempted to calculate the total article processing charges paid by Chinese researchers to open access journals in 2015. He arrived at the staggering figure of $72.17 million, or 470 million yuan.
A rough calculation shows that GMR, which charges a submission and publication fee of $1,350, has so far earned $4.9 million from Chinese researchers.
At the other side of the industry are scientific and medical ghostwriting companies, which are often registered as biotechnology companies in China. According to Li Jie (pseudonym), who works as a ghostwriter in a biotechnology company, the ghostwriting industry has been thriving in China for at least a decade.
Li used to be a part-time ghostwriter. After realizing how lucrative the industry is, he joined a biotechnology company which offers a range of services such as selling laboratory reagents, experiment outsourcing and SCI paper ghostwriting.
Li said since experiments are time-consuming and require costly machinery and personnel, most ghostwriting companies fake or plagiarize their experiment results. Most of the ghostwriters work on a part-time basis, and a PhD candidate in biology or even the owner of a master's degree can churn out a paper in two months.
Southern Weekly visited a company called Nanjing Dehengwen Biotechnology, posing as a researcher seeking authorship. Staff at the company told the reporter that an SCI paper with an impact factor of 1 costs 64,000 yuan, and usually it takes a year for the article to be published from when the contract is signed. For a faster service - getting a paper published in six months - the fee is 68,000 yuan.
The company will take care of everything from the layout to writing cover letters. But most of these ghostwriting companies can only offer to publish articles with an impact factor of less than 5. "First, clients don't have that time to wait. Second, to publish a high-impact-factor paper is a highly time- and intellect-consuming task," Li said.
Some ghostwriting companies have established long-term relationship with foreign companies, and have even forged relationships with third-party peer reviewers.
Even though ghostwriting is considered serious academic fraud, not all ghostwriting companies are underground. On recruiting websites and medical service platforms, many companies openly recruit part-time ghostwriters, and some researchers openly post their demands.
Excessive reliance on SCI has been a major characteristic of China's medical circle, to such an extent that it influences the lives of researchers both academically and professionally.
"SCI publications are an important - often primary - factor in the ranking of universities, hospitals and their faculties. For an individual, whether one wants to get a degree, be promoted or to receive funds, one's SCI publications are an important index," Xu said.
DXY.cn, an online community for physicians and healthcare professionals, once polled 1,928 doctors on their reliance on SCI publications. Among all the respondents, 824 said SCI-indexed publications are a must for promotion in their hospitals. To obtain a senior professional title, over 85 percent of organizations surveyed require 2 or more SCI publications, and 29.21 percent of the organizations require more than five.
This huge reliance on SCI has sparked many debates among medical researchers and practitioners. On November 22, 2014, 33 prominent medical experts met at a national symposium on the relationship between SCI papers and healthcare, signing a declaration advocating "handling SCI papers, medical treatment, and medical education the right way."
In 2015, China's healthcare and human resources authorities published a guideline, saying that publications should not be a necessity for the promotion of lower level medical practitioners.
Despite the guideline, the SCI demand remains. "During the evaluation of professional and academic titles, SCI publications are still valued more than the Chinese medical journals. And to get an advantage in the fierce competition, doctors still try all means to be featured in an SCI journal," Xu said.
After researching GMR's Chinese authors and their organizations, Xu found that most of them come from China's second- and third-tier cities. Authors from the Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Yangling, Shaanxi Province, for example, contributed the most papers to the journal of any institution. "Very few authors come from China's top universities or hospitals," Xu said.
"Those who are willing to publish their work in these low-impact factor journals mostly come from organizations that have a low academic requirement, and accept any publications as long as they're in an SCI-indexed journal," Xu said.
These dubious authors often do not need to pay with their own money. "The research grant will cover the fees," Xu said. And most hospitals and medical colleges have rewarding mechanisms for published SCI papers, including reimbursing the publication fee.
The DXY.cn poll shows that 43.51 percent of doctors can get a bonus of 10,000 yuan ($1,492) or more for each cumulative impact factor they get.