The papers were published in 2007 and the fraud came to light after a specialist journal called Acta Crystallographica Section E uncovered extensive fraud in Chinese-authored studies that purported to announce the invention of at least 70 structures in crystallography, i.e. the study of the arrangement of atoms in solids, when in fact bona-fide structures that had already been invented saw only one or two atoms changed to make the compound seem new. The fraud was spotted thanks to a computer programme that compares molecular structures.
Two groups, one led by Hua Zhong and the other by Tao Liu, are both based at Jinggangshan University, Jian, in Jiangsu. Zhong's group has retracted 41 papers, and Liu's group, 29, the journal said. However, the tally of 70 frauds “is likely” to rise further.
According to The Lancet, “China's government needs to take this episode as a cue to reinvigorate standards for teaching research ethics and for the conduct of the research itself, as well as establishing robust and transparent procedures for handling allegations of scientific misconduct to prevent further instances of fraud.”
However, the whole system of peer review scientific publications has come in for criticism, especially now that many are open-access and available for free on the internet.
Peer review assessment of data by independent scientists of high standing is the traditional cornerstone of excellence in science publishing. But the string of scandals over the last six years has caused the system to be closely questioned.
The most notorious case is that of "pioneering" South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk who hoodwinked the prestigious US journal Science in 2004 and 2005 with claims that he had created the world's first stem-cell line from a cloned human embryo. The claims raised hopes of new treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's.
The journal eventually apologised and Hwang was expelled from Seoul University, but the lack of proper controls on research findings has created waves in the world of scientific publishing.
In the last few years, Chinese scientists have become prolific publishers. They accounted for 11.5 per cent of the 271,000 papers that graced science journals last year, according to monitoring organisations, but unlike the governments of the United Kingdom or the United States, the government of China does not check current research and discoveries by individual or groups of scientists.