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Weak punishment for high-profile fraud case may compromise China’s academic research environment, say scientists
Han Chunyu in his lab   Photo: image.baidu.com
 
The investigation into Han Chunyu, a molecular biologist who retracted his paper after allegations of false claims, came to the conclusion that there was no intentional fraud on the part of the author, prompting some academics to warn that such perfunctory handling of the high-profile case would only compromise the country’s scientific research environment.

On August 31, the Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang published the “results” of the investigation in fewer than 600 words, notifying there was “no subjective cheating” involved in gene scientist Han Chunyu’s retraction of the controversial paper which contained experiment results that could not be replicated by others.

The university claimed it had formed a panel to examine and verify all original experimental data involved, entrusted a third-party national lab to repeat Han’s experiment, and concluded that “there was no basis for the paper to be republished, but there was also no reason to believe that Han’s research team had committed subjective fraud.”

Han Chunyu, a scientist at the Hebei University of Science and Technology, published a paper in the journal Nature Biotechnology in May 2016, which detailed how an enzyme named NgAgo could be used to edit genes in human cells.


He earned instant fame for claiming that the new way of editing human genes is more versatile than the now widely used CRISPR system, and will one day be able to eradicate inherited diseases by allowing disease-causing genes to be knocked out.

With the good news, the local government even offered to build a $32 million gene-editing research center at Han’s university for Han to lead. Later in September, the National Natural Science Foundation of China under the State Council, China’s cabinet, granted the project a research fund of one million yuan. And it’s reported by nature.com that Novozymes, a Danish enzyme manufacturer, also paid Han’s university an undisclosed sum as part of a collaboration agreement at the time.

However, later that year, suspicions began to surface as other scientists failed to replicate Han’s results. With many labs reporting failure in their efforts to replicate the experiment, a group of Chinese scientists called on relevant authorities to initiate a thorough investigation into Han’s study.

Under the pressure, Han Chunyu and his co-authors retracted the paper in August 2017, nearly one year after it was published, whilst his university announced to kick off an academic review of the research and its findings.

Han had insisted before the retraction that his team successfully repeated the experiment several times both before and after the paper was published, although he had been refusing to publicize the original data to clear his own name. Han also previously attributed his peer scientists’ failure to repeat the experiment to possible contamination of their labs.

Many academicians surveyed by thepaper.cn, a Shanghai-based news portal, complained that the investigation seemed to be performed in a halfhearted way. “In my view, it just intended to ‘muddle through’. A fraud is fraud, and there is no difference between objective and subjective fraud,” a professor specializing in CRISPR gene editing with the Zhejiang University said.

A researcher who could not be identified told thepaper.cn “publicly raising questions about Han Chunyu seemed to have put him in some kind of vulnerable position, although he’s not sure if (his dilemma) is directly related to his action (of calling in question Han’s research)”. “(We) have no idea how to face the complicated academic environment and (we) are confused,” he said. The researcher co-authored with others an article titled Questions about NgAgo, which was published as a Letter in domestic journal Protein & Cell in November 2016.

Some other scientists said the result went against the ‘zero tolerance’ policy proposed by the Ministry of Science and Technology in a bid to cultivate a culture of academic integrity.

The official website of Han’s team responded after the ‘ruling’, “It’s well know that the experiment is defective and not quite rigorous. The paper’s publication has misled academicians in the field both at home and abroad, and wasted human and material resources.”

Peer scientists thepaper.cn talked to generally criticized the handling of the Han Chunyu case, and expressed concerns about a deterioration in the country’s academic research environment.

“It’s confusing why those who committed fraud still get to continue their academic work. The ‘zero tolerance’ should really be implemented in the academic world,” the researcher who co-authored the letter questioning Han’s study said.

Till now, the most severe punishment for academic cheating is rescinding of honors and titles and withdrawal of scientific funds previously granted.

This May, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released the Opinions about developing academic integrity, which required severely cracking down on academic cheating and called on research institutions to take immediate actions to look into high-profile cases involving their own scientists and release investigation results soon.

The New York Times previously reported as China aimed to become a global powerhouse in scientific research, it first must overcome the festering problem of systemic fraud. “Since 2012, the country has retracted more scientific papers because of fake peer reviews than all other countries and territories put together,” the media cited Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks and seeks to publicize retractions of research papers.   

 


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