17 Aug 2010

Incentivising academic fraud

This is a guest post by Joe Dunckley
Catching up with the newsfeeds after a week working in Beijing (where citizens are saved from reading such subversive content as Journalology -- as they are all Blogspot blogs), I notice the Economist discussing academic fraud in China.

Being the Economist, it attempts to explain China's fraud epidemic focus on incentives:

China may be susceptible, suggests Dr Cong Cao, a specialist on the sociology of science in China at the State University of New York, because academics expect to advance according to the number, not the quality, of their published works. Thus reward can come without academic rigour. Nor do senior scientists, who are rarely punished for fraud, set a decent example to their juniors.
The trouble with this explanation is that these same incentives apply in many -- most -- other countries also. Science everywhere is plagued by the publish-or-perish game and the incentives it generates. Academic careers stand and fall on the basis of publication counts. Some countries at least try to judge quality of output in addition to quantity, but most methods are no more sophisticated than that used by China -- and every method has its incentives for fraud.

Nor does a lack of disincentives in China explain why they stand out. Fraud is rarely satisfactorily punished anywhere. If it is even discovered at all, the photoshopped figures and made-up numbers become an accident; the original data was lost sometime after that project was completed; the grad student who handled that particular experiment has moved on, and can no longer be contacted. A researcher getting fired for fraud is big news, not because fraud is rare, but because failing to weasel out of an allegation is rare.

It is my fear that China is perceived as having a higher rate of fraud compared to other countries not because it does, but because Chinese researchers aren't very good at it yet. Their fiddled figures are crude and easily spotted; their fictitious facts are amateur inventions that can not be believed. The worrying thing about these rough and unrefined fabrications is not that they themselves, easily found out and struck from the record, exist. The worrying fact is that they must be the tip of a great iceberg; 99% of the fakes are unseen, produced by forgers skilled enough to mask their work in convincing disguises and cover their tracks perfectly. As science in China matures, and the student to supervisor ratio falls and natural selection picks the cleverest conmen, the epidemic of clumsy and primitive fraud will end. That's when China joins the ranks of countries experiencing advanced and undetectable fraud epidemics.

Discussing fraud as a symptom of a Chinese problem -- of a failure of Chinese academic administration or a flaw in the Chinese culture and psyche -- is a nice distraction from the uncomfortable fact that fraud is a symptom of a global problem -- of failing academic administration everywhere. The Chinese copied the publish-or-perish game from the west. Soon they'll get good at it.

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