2020-01-13 12:42:52

A Chinese academic’s paper on ecology has received unwanted attention for navigating uncharted territory: the nature of his adviser’s marital relationship.

In a 2013 paper published in China’s Journal of Glaciology and Geocryology, Xu Zhongmin included information irrelevant to the topic of ecological economics by inserting details on the ecosystem of his adviser Cheng Guodong’s relationship with his wife, Zhang Youfen.

The Bureau of Science Communication, which oversees academic publications at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said Sunday that it would investigate papers by Xu deemed “inconsistent with the academic positioning of the journal.” Xu is employed as a researcher at the academy’s Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute.

The bureau discovered the atypical content after Xu’s research paper went viral online over the weekend, according to the statement.

On Sunday, the journal’s editorial team said it would retract Xu’s paper. The journal’s staff member told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, that the journal will also review Xu’s other published works.

Xu had sprinkled his scientific paper with poetic language, describing Zhang as “beautiful, elegant, and graceful,” like the “lotus coming out of clear water, beauty born by nature without ornamentation.” He also described his adviser, Cheng, as a man with “an insight as high and deep as the sky road (and) a mind as broad and calm as the sea.”

The author also included a chart called “the harmonious and unified relationship of Mr. Cheng and Mrs. Zhang,” along with a table listing the couple’s laudable qualities.

A chart from Xu Zhongmin’s research paper, translated by Sixth Tone.

A chart from Xu Zhongmin’s research paper, translated by Sixth Tone.

In an interview with The Paper, Xu defended his approach, saying his adviser’s marriage was “an example” to prove the “development theory” of his paper. The study was part of a 2 million yuan ($290,000) research project on the Heihe River Basin, funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and led by Xu, according to The Beijing News.

Cheng, who also serves as the journal’s editor-in-chief, apologized to readers and announced that he had submitted his resignation, according to The Paper. Cheng said he had not been aware of the study in question before it was published. “I did not know about the publication … I should bear heavy responsibility,” he said.

The Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources of the CAS, the journal’s publisher, said it had accepted Cheng’s resignation and would begin “rectifying” the editorial board and editorial department.

The questionable content of Xu’s paper comes at a time when Chinese academia is plagued with cases of plagiarism, fake peer reviews, and other academic misconduct. In November, the scientific community became alarmed after Cao Xuetao, a high-profile academician, was called out for apparent discrepancies in his research.

To protect the integrity of the country’s academic community, Chinese authorities have increased their efforts to curtail dishonest practices in academia. In November 2018, 41 agencies and departments of the central government issued a joint memo implementing punishments for dishonest academics and institutions, while the country last year unveiled a five-year plan to pour 1 billion yuan into making domestic journals more reputable internationally.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Tuchong)