• By The Financial District


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, Dennis Normile wrote for Science.

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 January 21 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 one 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 on January 22, 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 many Cao papers “where it is very, very likely that an ‘accident’ has happened.” Bik tweeted, adding that the duplications “suggest an ‘intention to mislead.’”