A prominent Chinese scientist who faced allegations of image manipulation in dozens of papers has been cleared of serious misconduct although he has been ordered to correct “misused images” in the articles and has received several other punishments. Yet several scholars involved in or following the case are dissatisfied with the outcome, with some saying he should have been forced to resign.
A brief notification posted on the website of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on 21 January says a group drawn from several ministries and agencies had concluded an investigation into suspected data falsification in papers authored by immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of Nankai University and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Cao is one of the most prominent Chinese scientists to be caught up in allegations of misconduct in recent years.
The investigation was launched in November 2019 after microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, an independent consultant in San Francisco who specializes in finding doctored figures, questioned several images in a 2009 paper in The Journal of Immunology co-authored by Cao. After Bik posted her critique on the journal discussion site PubPeer, other contributors spotted problems in additional Cao papers.
The 63 papers covered in the MOST probe contained no evidence of fraud, plagiarism, or duplication, according to a single paragraph in the statement, although there were “misused images in many papers, reflecting a lack of rigorous laboratory management.”
Cao will be barred from applying for national science and technology projects, lose his qualification as a scientific expert, and be forbidden from recruiting graduate students, all for 1 year. The notification also ordered him to investigate and correct the papers. It appears he will keep his job as president of Nankai University, one of China’s most prestigious universities. (On Nankai’s English-language website, Cao is also listed as one of the university’s two chancellors.) Cao did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Bik questions the findings. In a series of tweets yesterday she presented a couple of papers co-authored by Cao in which the reuse of images could have been honest errors. But there are still “multiple Cao papers where it is very, very unlikely that an ‘accident’ has happened,” Bik tweeted, adding that the duplications “suggest an ‘intention to mislead.’” Others criticize the investigation and the penalties as well. “I’m not very happy with the findings by the Chinese government,” says Huang Futao, a Chinese higher education scholar at Hiroshima University in Japan, who calls the outcome “unfair.” In his position, Cao should be setting an example of research integrity, Huang says: “He should resign” or lose his position as Nankai University president.
Huang also says the investigation took too long and criticizes the lack of detail in the report. China has adopted regulations and issued guidelines intended to stem the tide of questionable papers; Cao got off lightly, Huang says, possibly because of his position and connections. The imposition of penalties specified in the new directives apparently “depends on who you are,” Huang says.
Cao Cong, a science policy expert at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China, calls the investigation “very disappointing.” There are no details on who carried it out, what evidence was examined, or how the conclusions were reached. “This discredits the mechanism of maintaining the integrity of research, to say the least,” says Cao Cong, who is not related to Cao Xuetao.
Four of Cao Xuetao’s papers were retracted in 2020 by the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which also retracted a Cao Xuetao paper in 2015, according to the website Retraction Watch. Three additional Cao Xuetao papers were given expressions of concern last year.
The MOST notification also covers allegations against several other individuals. The panel found no fraud in two papers by neuroscientist Rao Yi of Capital Medical University, and no evidence of misconduct in five papers by Geng Meiyu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, which focuses on traditional Chinese medicine. Geng’s research led to a drug for treating Alzheimer’s disease, GV971, that was approved for use in China in 2019 even though there was little data on efficacy. Geng’s commercial partner, Green Valley Pharmaceuticals, is planning a global phase III trial, according to Alzforum, a website that tracks information related to Alzheimer’s treatments.