Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Chemistry World: Academic Controversy Leads to Bloodshet
Chemistry World China, a British scientific journal, reports:
Academic controversy leads to bloodshed
By Hepeng Jia and Tao He/Beijing, China
The imprisonment of a professor of urology after attacks on critics at has led to louder calls to shake up China’s academic community.
On 8 November, Beijing’s Intermediary Court sentenced Xiao Chuanguo of Wuhan-based Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) to five and half months’ imprisonment for hiring thugs to assault an outspoken science fraud buster - Fang Shimin, who goes by
well-known pen name Fang Zhouzi - and Fang Xuanchang, science editor of Caijing Magazine.
The two victims are highly dissatisfied with the slight penalty, while Xiao’s lawyer argues he should not be found guilty and imprisoned because the attack was not serious enough. Accompanying the debate is an increasing concern surrounding academic ethics in China.
‘It is a dangerous time for academic ethics,[in China]’ says Huang Boyun, president of Changsha, China-based Central South University, at the annual meeting of China Association for Science and Technology (Cast) in early November.
The assault against Fang Xuanchang took place in June, when Fang’s skull was cracked by three men brandishing steel sticks. He lost nearly two litres of blood. Two months later, Fang Shimin was attacked with hammer and chili water, but luckily escaped with only minor injuries.
On 21 September, Beijing police announced that the attackers had been detained and the individual suspected of hiring them was identified as Xiao.
A festering wound
In September 2005, Fang published an article criticising Xiao's candidacy for membership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). In it he explained that CAS members must work full-time in China, but that Xiao worked both at HUST and New York University Medical Center, in the US.
Fang, who obtained his PhD in biochemistry from Michigan State University in the US before becoming well-known in China after starting a website to expose scientific misconduct, also claimed that Xiao had exaggerated his academic achievements by including presentations listed in conference proceedings among his international publications.
Xiao is mainly famous for his bold operation to rebuild sections of patients’ nervous systems to return the ability to control urination to those who were paralysed or suffered some other
neurological complaint that affected this ability. But Fang questioned the achievement, saying there was little evidence supporting the use of the procedure.
Fang Xuanchang then led investigations into Xiao’s case published in China News Weekly in 2007 and Science News Magazine in 2009, where he had been science editor and executive chief editor respectively.
In 2006, a court in Wuhan, where HUST is located, ruled that Fang had libelled Xiao. In 2007, however, Beijing Intermediary Court ruled that Fang’s articles against Xiao constituted normal academic criticism, and the court should not be involved in the debate. CAS members voted against Xiao joining the organisation in 2005.
Fang Shimin, meanwhile, continued to question Xiao’s claims, and a series of investigative news articles criticising Xiao’s medical procedure were published by Fang Xuanchang and other journalists in late 2009 and early 2010.
According to police, Xiao began to plan the assault in early 2010 and he spent Yuan100,000 (US$15,000) to hire the attackers. But in court Xiao said that he only wanted to teach the two small lessons, rather than cause bloody injuries or even murders as claimed by the two.
This escalation from academic controversy to physical attack in China has caused increased calls among both the public and academics for better discipline in science communities.
‘I hope this case can become a good chance for the fight against academic misconduct,’ Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science, said during his visit to China in mid October.
According to Alberts, the key to improve academic ethics is to establish a system to investigate claimed misconduct in a timely manner and punish wrongdoers.
Chinese science Minister Wan Gang promised at a symposium in Shanghai in mid November that his ministry will take a zero tolerance approach to academic plagiarism and fabrication.
In 2006, the Ministry of Science and Technology set up an academic disciplining office. This facility has been replicated in government departments like Education Ministry, National Natural Science Foundation and CAS.
However, Fang says it is unlikely to have an effect overnight. ‘The key is not to claim zero tolerance over and over again, but to give real punishment. There are more and more cases of misconduct being exposed, but only a few of them get real punishment.’
On Fang’s website, famous for exposing and criticising academic misconduct and pseudoscience, allegations of more than 1000 cases of academic misconduct have been made in the past 10 years, but only a tiny proportion of them – often first reported by media – were officially investigated.
In Xiao’s case, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said in early November that his medical procedure, despite having been carried out on more than 4000 patients, has not been approved for commercial operation.
‘But the ban did not appear before this, despite the media and I repeatedly reporting the poor outcomes of the operation and hyped claims to the ministry,’ Fang Shimin told Chemistry World.
While the government has not done enough to vet academics as appealed by Fang and others, Fang himself has been hailed by the public as a hero since being attacked.
But some, mainly academics, question Fang’s efforts against academic misconduct, saying he could not judge academic fields outside his specialism or criticising his firm denial of traditional Chinese medicine.
‘The efforts against academic misconduct by Fang and others have hidden the true problem of Chinese science, which is lack of real innovative research. The attention should be focused on the scientific and education systems that brew innovations, says a scientist at Tsinghua University, who would not be named.
But Fang says that he would prefer the authorities – such as ministries of science, health and education – instead of him and his website to take more systematic work to stamp out misconduct, “But they have done too little,” he says.