‘Most important battle in our lives’: 11 Chinese university students overthrow professor accused of faking data
- Supervisor dismissed after investigation which began with student allegations of fabricated data and manipulated peer reviews
- Whistle-blowers were ready to lose their diplomas but felt they had to act, despite power imbalance in China’s universities
“For us, this is the most important battle in our ordinary lives,” wrote doctoral student Zhang Li, in a post to social media platform Weibo on January 23.
For more than a month, he and 10 other students at Huazhong Agricultural University (HZAU) in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, had been quietly preparing a “revolution” to overthrow their supervisor.
HAZU found that 10 papers listing Huang as corresponding author contained falsified data, while a textbook he edited and published used other people’s content without attribution. The book has been suspended from use.
He was also found to have misused funds and lacked due diligence as a tutor. All 15 students in his lab have been reassigned to new supervisors, according to HAZU.
The decision to blow the whistle on Huang paid off, but such accusations are rare in China, where the power imbalance between students and their supervisors is marked.
While there have been cases of students making complaints about their supervisors, they usually wait until after they graduate, given that the role includes the power to give a student’s dissertation the green light.
The students’ campaign began on January 16, when a 125-page letter accusing Huang of academic misconduct and of encouraging students to cheat, was made public on various Chinese online platforms.
Of the 15 students in Huang’s lab – three studying for PhDs and 12 master’s students – 11 signed the open letter. The Post contacted Huang for a response to the allegations, but he has not yet replied.
Liu Xiaomeng, one of the whistle-blowers, wrote in a diary-style letter: “I’ve suffered many breakdowns and really couldn’t figure out how to graduate while staying upright.”
She posted the letter on her social media account on January 17, saying that she was placed in a lab that lacked almost all essential research materials and equipment and that at one point she was abruptly given some data from an unknown source and asked to write a paper.
Fan Xiudi, director of the Education Evaluation Research Centre at Tongji University in Shanghai, said that any student in China who spoke out against a tutor could end up hurting themselves, as “the university may downplay the scandal and the student will be left in isolation”.
“Students have to take great risks and even bet on the future of their academic careers. This suggests that something is wrong with our entire academic environment,” she said.
Four of the students – including Zhang – are due to graduate in June. But if they kept quiet about their concerns, they felt it was likely that they would have been asked to fabricate data in their dissertations.
This was something they were unwilling to do and in the end, the students decided to stand up and say no, Zhang said.
“We had worries about the possible consequences, but it had to be done. “We all prepared for the worst and were ready to even lose our diplomas and look for jobs in our hometowns,” he told the Post, in an interview before the university announced its decision.
Another graduate student expressed support for the students’ “fight” on social media platform Zhihu.
“The community has tolerated academic misconduct for a long time. But we can only turn a blind eye to the widespread cheating of some powerful academics,” the graduate student said.
After graduating in 2018 from HZAU’s college of life sciences and technology, Zhang said he was excited to join Huang’s research team as he continued his postgraduate studies at the university.
He recalled that when he was choosing his supervisor, he was attracted by the glowing introductions on Huang’s official website. “His curriculum vitae is full of many outstanding academic achievements and various honours,” Zhang said.
But in 2020, as a PhD student, he began to have suspicions. He noticed that some students had published papers though they did not appear to have carried out experiments.
Some samples, too, seemed to have data that did not seem reasonable even though it was claimed they had been sent for third-party testing, Zhang felt.
Huang, himself a past student of HZAU, was something of a rising star in his field of animal molecular nutrition and feed processing technology.
He was selected as a Distinguished Young Scholar – one of the country’s most competitive talent programmes – at the provincial level.
He led a number of national research projects and also received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), which funds most of the country’s basic scientific research.
Huang started his bachelor’s degree at HZAU in 1999 and completed his PhD in 2008. After graduation, he began working at the university and was promoted to professor and PhD supervisor in 2017. He was head of his department before his dismissal.
But the students’ accusations brought his impressive résumé tumbling down – and led to a tsunami of public attention and online discussion.
Huang’s students listed more than 30 problematic academic papers in which they claimed there was evidence of fraud, including 15 published papers and 19 dissertations that he supervised.
The papers, published mainly between 2016 and 2023, were alleged to show misconduct, including the use of the same experimental graphs in different papers, graphs with obvious signs of splicing, and discrepancies between original and published data, suggesting fabrication or manipulation of data.
For example, in 2021, a paper with Huang as corresponding author was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Hepatology, which included an experimental image on “protein expression in mouse liver”.
However the same image was also found in the thesis of his PhD student Wang Tongxin – who was the first author of the paper – except that in Wang’s research, the data was from piglet liver.
In their letter, the students implied that these papers were only the ones for which they could get conclusive evidence, claiming that there might be others that had been falsified or invented – something they said would need further investigation.
On January 18, HZAU officially announced that its investigation team had found that the issues raised by the students regarding the experimental images, data and research results were basically true, and that the university had suspended all of Huang’s positions and work as a faculty member.
Huang’s students alleged other unethical behaviour, including allowing postdoctoral researchers to manipulate peer reviews, failing to pay students’ monthly allowances on time, and coercing students into falsifying data to make their dissertations “perfect”.
Over the past decade, the number of papers published by Chinese researchers in journals listed in the Science Citation Index (SCI), one of the main international benchmarks, has increased dramatically. Meanwhile, the issue of papers being retracted has become more serious than ever before.
Citing data from Healsan Consulting and Retraction Watch, a report in the mainland investigative outlet Caixin in January said that, in the past decade, there had been more than 50,000 retractions of SCI papers worldwide.
Chinese research accounted for more than a quarter of the articles retracted due to plagiarism, fake peer reviews and unreliable data, the report said. That figure rose to 75 per cent in the year 2023.
Admittedly, Fan said, academic fraud was a pervasive global phenomenon, however, what worried her was that the academic ecosystem in China encouraged its growth.
She said one of the underlying reasons for it was that the number of papers published was connected with too many benefits, including promotion, funding and various awards.
This could incentivise researchers to take unethical short-cuts, as it became less important whether their work was really relevant to society or whether the data was reliable, she said.
Research institutions also wanted their staff to win awards as they also benefited, such as by improving their ranking and increasing their competitiveness.
“Unethical cases often surface after people outside the institution expose them,” she said.
“Such an ecosystem can lead to right-thinking students and researchers who are truly passionate about research being disadvantaged or even marginalised in a group or organisation.”
In their open letter, the students said two postdoctoral researchers in Huang’s lab were held up by him as role models, having published dozens of papers in top journals. But they noted that others in the group had never seen the pair perform experiments, and that the lab’s facilities were surprisingly spartan.
“So where did the experimental results come from? The answer is obvious: by fabrication … This method is less time-consuming, less expensive, produces better results and higher output, so it naturally becomes the preferred choice of some people,” they wrote.
Academic misconduct was essentially the illegal “plundering” of resources and had far-reaching consequences, Fan said.
As well as the issues at an institute level, misconduct could lead to a negative and biased impression of all Chinese research among the global scientific community, plus it could affect the country’s science and technology industry and its economic competitiveness, she said.