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  • 12 February 2024

China conducts first nationwide review of retractions and research misconduct

  • Smriti Mallapaty

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The reputation of Chinese science has been "adversely affected" by the number of retractions in recent years, according to a government notice. Credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty

Chinese universities are days away from the deadline to complete a nationwide audit of retracted research papers and probe of research misconduct. By 15 February, universities must submit to the government a comprehensive list of all academic articles retracted from English- and Chinese-language journals in the past three years. They need to clarify why the papers were retracted and investigate cases involving misconduct, according to a 20 November notice from the Ministry of Education’s Department of Science, Technology and Informatization.

The government launched the nationwide self-review in response to Hindawi, a London-based subsidiary of the publisher Wiley, retracting a large number of papers by Chinese authors. These retractions, along with those from other publishers, “have adversely affected our country’s academic reputation and academic environment”, the notice states.

A Nature analysis shows that last year, Hindawi issued more than 9,600 retractions, of which the vast majority — about 8,200 — had a co-author in China. Nearly 14,000 retraction notices, of which some three-quarters involved a Chinese co-author, were issued by all publishers in 2023.

This is “the first time we’ve seen such a national operation on retraction investigations”, says Xiaotian Chen, a library and information scientist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, who has studied retractions and research misconduct in China. Previous investigations have largely been carried out on a case-by-case basis — but this time, all institutions have to conduct their investigations simultaneously, says Chen.

Tight deadline

The ministry’s notice set off a chain of alerts, cascading to individual university departments. Bulletins posted on university websites required researchers to submit their retractions by a range of dates, mostly in January — leaving time for universities to collate and present the data.

Although the alerts included lists of retractions that the ministry or the universities were aware of, they also called for unlisted retractions to be added.

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More than 10,000 research papers were retracted in 2023 — a new record

According to Nature ’s analysis, which includes only English-language journals, more than 17,000 retraction notices for papers published by Chinese co-authors have been issued since 1 January 2021, which is the start of the period of review specified in the notice. The analysis, an update of one conducted in December , used the Retraction Watch database, augmented with retraction notices collated from the Dimensions database, and involved assistance from Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse in France. It is unclear whether the official lists contain the same number of retracted papers.

Regardless, the timing to submit the information will be tight, says Shu Fei, a bibliometrics scientist at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China. The ministry gave universities less than three months to complete their self-review — and this was cut shorter by the academic winter break, which typically starts in mid-January and concludes after the Chinese New Year, which fell this year on 10 February.

“The timing is not good,” he says. Shu expects that universities are most likely to submit only a preliminary report of their researchers’ retracted papers included on the official lists.

But Wang Fei, who studies research-integrity policy at Dalian University of Technology in China, says that because the ministry has set a deadline, universities will work hard to submit their findings on time.

Researchers with retracted papers will have to explain whether the retraction was owing to misconduct, such as image manipulation, or an honest mistake, such as authors identifying errors in their own work, says Chen: “In other words, they may have to defend themselves.” Universities then must investigate and penalize misconduct. If a researcher fails to declare their retracted paper and it is later uncovered, they will be punished, according to the ministry notice. The cost of not reporting is high, says Chen. “This is a very serious measure.”

It is not known what form punishment might take, but in 2021, China’s National Health Commission posted the results of its investigations into a batch of retracted papers. Punishments included salary cuts, withdrawal of bonuses, demotions and timed suspensions from applying for research grants and rewards.

The notice states explicitly that the first corresponding author of a paper is responsible for submitting the response. This requirement will largely address the problem of researchers shirking responsibility for collaborative work, says Li Tang, a science- and innovation-policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. The notice also emphasizes due process, says Tang. Researchers alleged to have committed misconduct have a right to appeal during the investigation.

The notice is a good approach for addressing misconduct, says Wang. Previous efforts by the Chinese government have stopped at issuing new research-integrity guidelines that were poorly implemented, she says. And when government bodies did launch self-investigations of published literature, they were narrower in scope and lacked clear objectives. This time, the target is clear — retractions — and the scope is broad, involving the entire university research community, she says.

“Cultivating research integrity takes time, but China is on the right track,” says Tang.

It is not clear what the ministry will do with the flurry of submissions. Wang says that, because the retraction notices are already freely available, publicizing the collated lists and underlying reasons for retraction could be useful. She hopes that a similar review will be conducted every year “to put more pressure” on authors and universities to monitor research integrity.

What happens next will reveal how seriously the ministry regards research misconduct, says Shu. He suggests that, if the ministry does not take further action after the Chinese New Year, the notice could be an attempt to respond to the reputational damage caused by the mass retractions last year.

The ministry did not respond to Nature ’s questions about the misconduct investigation.

Chen says that, regardless of what the ministry does with the information, the reporting process itself will help to curb misconduct because it is “embarrassing to the people in the report”.

But it might primarily affect researchers publishing in English-language journals. Retraction notices in Chinese-language journals are rare.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-00397-x

Data analysis by Richard Van Noorden.

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EU AI Act: first regulation on artificial intelligence

The use of artificial intelligence in the EU will be regulated by the AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive AI law. Find out how it will protect you.

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As part of its digital strategy , the EU wants to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure better conditions for the development and use of this innovative technology. AI can create many benefits , such as better healthcare; safer and cleaner transport; more efficient manufacturing; and cheaper and more sustainable energy.

In April 2021, the European Commission proposed the first EU regulatory framework for AI. It says that AI systems that can be used in different applications are analysed and classified according to the risk they pose to users. The different risk levels will mean more or less regulation. Once approved, these will be the world’s first rules on AI.

Learn more about what artificial intelligence is and how it is used

What Parliament wants in AI legislation

Parliament’s priority is to make sure that AI systems used in the EU are safe, transparent, traceable, non-discriminatory and environmentally friendly. AI systems should be overseen by people, rather than by automation, to prevent harmful outcomes.

Parliament also wants to establish a technology-neutral, uniform definition for AI that could be applied to future AI systems.

Learn more about Parliament’s work on AI and its vision for AI’s future

AI Act: different rules for different risk levels

The new rules establish obligations for providers and users depending on the level of risk from artificial intelligence. While many AI systems pose minimal risk, they need to be assessed.

Unacceptable risk

Unacceptable risk AI systems are systems considered a threat to people and will be banned. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioural manipulation of people or specific vulnerable groups: for example voice-activated toys that encourage dangerous behaviour in children
  • Social scoring: classifying people based on behaviour, socio-economic status or personal characteristics
  • Biometric identification and categorisation of people
  • Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition

Some exceptions may be allowed for law enforcement purposes. “Real-time” remote biometric identification systems will be allowed in a limited number of serious cases, while “post” remote biometric identification systems, where identification occurs after a significant delay, will be allowed to prosecute serious crimes and only after court approval.

AI systems that negatively affect safety or fundamental rights will be considered high risk and will be divided into two categories:

1) AI systems that are used in products falling under the EU’s product safety legislation . This includes toys, aviation, cars, medical devices and lifts.

2) AI systems falling into specific areas that will have to be registered in an EU database:

  • Management and operation of critical infrastructure
  • Education and vocational training
  • Employment, worker management and access to self-employment
  • Access to and enjoyment of essential private services and public services and benefits
  • Law enforcement
  • Migration, asylum and border control management
  • Assistance in legal interpretation and application of the law.

All high-risk AI systems will be assessed before being put on the market and also throughout their lifecycle.

General purpose and generative AI

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, would have to comply with transparency requirements:

  • Disclosing that the content was generated by AI
  • Designing the model to prevent it from generating illegal content
  • Publishing summaries of copyrighted data used for training

High-impact general-purpose AI models that might pose systemic risk, such as the more advanced AI model GPT-4, would have to undergo thorough evaluations and any serious incidents would have to be reported to the European Commission.

Limited risk

Limited risk AI systems should comply with minimal transparency requirements that would allow users to make informed decisions. After interacting with the applications, the user can then decide whether they want to continue using it. Users should be made aware when they are interacting with AI. This includes AI systems that generate or manipulate image, audio or video content, for example deepfakes.

On December 9 2023, Parliament reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the AI act . The agreed text will now have to be formally adopted by both Parliament and Council to become EU law. Before all MEPs have their say on the agreement, Parliament’s internal market and civil liberties committees will vote on it.

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