Chinese university chief under investigation after research called into question

Zhuang Pinghui

The Chinese Academy of Engineering is investigating the president of a leading university over claims that academic papers he supervised may have questionable data.

Cao Xuetao, the president of Nankai University in Tianjin, insisted that he was “confident in the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions” after the accusations were made on PubPeer, a US website that allows users to review scientific research.

Last Thursday, Elisabeth Bik, a former microbiologist who has spent the last five years identifying image manipulation in research, posted about apparently duplicated graph results from a paper Cao supervised in 2008 when he was vice-president of The Second Military Medical University.

“Each panel with the measurement of cells should have a constellation of dots but some panels appear to have the same set of dots and that is not expected in a biology experiment,” Bik wrote.

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The discovery led to similar findings in more than 50 papers Cao supervised when he was with The Second Military Medical University and National Key Laboratory of Medical Immunology with Zhejiang University between 2003 and last year.

Bik posted on Twitter that she was not accusing anyone of misconduct. “Please keep in mind that many of these duplications might just be honest errors,” she wrote.

An unidentified official with the academy’s general office told Shanghai news site Thepaper.cn that an investigation will be carried out.

“We have already learned about the online complaints against academician Cao Xuetao. We will look into it but further investigation takes time,” the official said.

Cao, who took up his post at Nankai in 2017, told China Newsweek last Friday that he would investigate the claims.

“I am aware of the attention. I will give a response when the investigation is done,” Cao was quoted as saying.

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Cao responded to Bik’s posting on PubPeer on Sunday night, saying that he had made investigating the claims his top priority and had started re-examining manuscripts, raw data and lab records.

He also said he would work with the “relevant journal editorial office(s) immediately” if the investigation indicated any risk of inaccuracy.

However, Cao defended his work. “Based on our analyses up to this point (still ongoing) and additional feedback we received from colleagues and peers, I would like to add that I remain confident about the validity and strength of the scientific conclusions made in those publications,” Cao said.

Cao admitted there may have been “lapses in supervision” and that he “might have fallen short”. He apologised for “any oversight” on his part.

Some of the authors of the papers in question responded to the criticism on PubPeer, saying that there had been some errors in the editing process and they had contacted the journals that published the research to correct the mistakes.

Cao could not be reached for comment.

This article Chinese university chief under investigation after research called into question first appeared on South China Morning Post

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