Research integrity

The Teachings of Chairman Cao

The immunologist Xuetao Cao is one of the most important scientists in China. The Academician and General is also Chairman of research integrity of all Chinese research. Now Elisabeth Bik scrutinised his papers.

Professor Xuetao Cao is former President of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and now the Chairman of research integrity in all Chinese research. The immunologist is also a genius, whose wise words are mandatory for the academic working masses to learn and presumably also to recite.

As per official hagiography, Cao was awarded his PhD at the age of 26, because his Master thesis was so excellent that his examiners gave him a doctorate instead. At 28, Cao was made the youngest medical professor in China, at 40 he was appointed Vice President of the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai. In 2005, the 41 year old genius was elected as the youngest member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, of which the Medical Academy is part, and he simultaneously rose to the military rank of a general, the youngest in China.

Takes one to know one… Full video of Chairman Cao’s speech here

Chairman Cao is also EMBO member, and among other things, fellow of German Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), French Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of Medicine and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, Nature bestowed the Lifetime Achievement Award for Mentoring in Science to Cao, the Chairman of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. Nature argued:

if China is to become a true scientific superpower, it must be able to produce great scientists who are not just knowledgeable but also creative and skilled in innovation. And great scientists need great mentors to lead the way.

It is apparently another case where Nature was confused about what skills a scientist is supposed to mentor. Hint: it is not the art of data falsification.

On 13 November 2019, Chairman Cao spoke to the masses at The Great Hall of People in Beijing, where usually only the Communist Party leadership holds its most important rallies. The topic of the Chairman Cao speech (full video available here) was Research Integrity.

Chairman Cao speaking in Great Hall of People. Source: XHBY.net

The great teacher of the pipetting masses spoke of the need to educate students on research ethics from the very beginning: “the first button should be tied well in scientistic research” and of the “red lines in scientific research that we should never cross“. As a warning, the shining rod of research integrity spoke of the mass-retraction of 107 Chinese papers in 2017, but also of foreign fraud cases, Piero Anversa in Harvard and Jan-Hendrik Schön at the Bell Labs, where he remarked: “these cases have more profound negative effects around the globe than Chinese cases

Six thousands graduate students, postdocs, professors and Academy members were raptly listening in the audience, but the event was also broadcasted to the entire nation, every university in China live-streamed the speech and all students and faculty were ordered to watch. To make sure they did, everyone had to fill in a form, testifying to have watched the event and reporting what they have learned. As the China’s First Scientist Cao said:

Bottom Line: Integrity, Ethics, Morality

The nation is listening attentively to the wise words of Chairman Cao, livestreamed to all Chinese universities

And now it comes out, Cao’s research works contain elaborately falsified research data. The discovery was made by data integrity sleuth Elisabeth Bik, assisted by Smut Clyde and others. It all started with a fraudulent paper, Wang et al Clin Cancer Research 2005 from Cao’s lab, which Bik reported to the publisher AACR in 2014. Despite 4 falsified figures, only an embarrassing correction was issued in March 2015. So now Bik had another look at Chairman Cao’s collected works.

Chairman Cao’s PubPeer record stood at 54 papers when this article first went online. It seems, not everyone in China believes the Party version of Cao’s scientific genius. The hints to scrutinise his works, and even direct evidence, reached Bik namely from behind the Great Firewall which blocks Twitter. Like this here, from Rui et al J Immunology 2007:

Cao is former editorial board member of the Journal of Immunology, “the largest and oldest journal in the field” which seems to regularly fall prey to fraudulent research, having apparently surrendered to its fate while trying to make the best of it. As if to prove that, another Cao paper Gu et al J Immunology 2014 was half-heartedly corrected soon after it was published. Maybe someone blew the whistle already 5 years ago, but thing is: there was much more to discover that the manipulated Figure 7, specifically also Figures 2, 5 and 6. Did Journal of Immunology really not know? Or preferred not to know?

There are several other highly problematic Cao papers in that same society journal, published by the American Association of Immunologists. Both the Journal of Immunology and the society previously refused all communication with me, one senior executive blocked me on Twitter after I criticised a major journal contributor and society member. There is now nobody to complain to about Cao’s papers, the journal policy has been made abundantly clear.

The papers from Cao’s lab which Bik and others analysed span almost two decades, limited not by past honesty, but by insufficient image quality in old publications to allow a proper scrutiny. The oldest paper is Sui et al BBRC 2003, its western blots were recycled one year later in Yang et al JBC 2004, and all the samples received new identities.

This blot recycling orgy inside one and same Figure 5 is among the freshest catch, in Liu et al Cell Mol Immunology 2018. Someone felt very safe, and bold:

The highest-ranking paper Bik exposed is this Chen et al Cancer Cell 2014, another safe heaven for manipulated data. A confocal microscopy image was re-used for different cells, once with the green signal, once without. Hardly an accident:

Everything which is falsifiable, was falsified. Microscopy images, western blots galore of course, but also quite a lot of flow cytometry. Or flaw cytometry, as Bik put it to describe Cao’s publications. For example this in He at al Mol Immunology 2007:

The highlighted similarities in otherwise different flow cytometry plots suggest that the same sample was re-gated and passed off as an utterly different sample, from a different experiment, a technique I described here.

If someone can photoshop western blots, it is no trouble to do same to RT-PCR gel images, as apparently happened in Li et al J Mol Med 2008:

And where one is used to reusing fluorescence microscopy images, one can do same for immunohistochemistry just as well, in Li et al Eur J Immunology 2008:

Some blogs tentatively raised concerns early on, like this here:

Archive website here

Even the state-gagged Chinese media soon tested the waters, sensing the scandal may be too big for the Communist Party to ignore or suppress it. Journalists reached out to Bik, but were initially ordered to remain silent.

It got worse and worse for Chairman Cao, his PubPeer record grew on hourly base. Some data duplications were seemingly minor, and authors promptly replied on PubPeer, thanking Bik and promising corrections. Other issues were so serious that it was indeed better for the perpetrators to remain silent. How to explain this western blot loading control in Ma et al J Biol Chem 2009?, which was apparently brought to Bik’s attention by a concerned scientist in China?

Eventually, the reporting ban was either lifted, or maybe rather the regime was unable to keep the lid on. This report appeared in China Newsweek on 17 November:

Site backup here

Faced with the massive evidence of fabricated data in over 50 papers, Cao told this to China Newsweek:

Artwork: Cheshire

I just arrived in Shanghai lab, check to make all these things. I know that we are concerned about this matter, when the investigation is over, I will give you a reply.”

The article mentioned Cao’s past research on Qigong breath exercise as a way to cure cancer with Qi, which was allegedly published in Nature (it was not, but in a Chinese copy-cat journal). I did find this hilarious comedy gold, from Cao’s reckless youth, presented in 1988 at a Qigong congress:

The effect of the emitted qi preventing tumor metastased in vivo in tumor-bearing mice is reported in this paper. The experiment was conducted with the help of the famous qigong master Hu Jiefu who emitted his qi to C57BL/6 mice inoculated with 2 X 10[power 5] B16 melanoma tumor cells via the tail veins. On days 3, 5, 7, 9 after the tumor cell inoculation, the mice received the emitted qi for 30 min. each time.

In case you wondered: yes, the emitted Qi cured mice of melanoma, spectacularly. At the tender age of 26, young Cao already cured cancer using his mighty Qi, and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences continued the exploration he began. But not only in China: even Harvard set on to cure cancer with Qigong energy.

Dr Cao’s “Nature” paper on Qigong

No wonder his examiners gave him a PhD instead of a MSc he originally studied for, and made him professor 2 years later. Cao’s career, kicked off by Traditional Chinese Medicine woo and boosted by the massive use of Photoshop, soared towards all records: youngest General, youngest rector, youngest Academy member. And now Chairman Cao is in charge of research integrity in all China.

Chairman Cao, inspecting his Photoshop division (source: XuetaoCao.org)

Also on 17 November, Chairman Cao publicly replied to his critic Bik, on PubPeer:

General Cao, ready to go to war over research integrity

Dear Dr. Bik,

I’m writing to you in response to recent inquiries you posted with regard to mentioned studies conducted at the National Key Laboratory of Medical Immunology and Institute of Immunology at the Second Military Medical University, with me being the corresponding author.

I appreciate your interest in our work and your commitment to protecting the accuracy of scientific records and the integrity of research pursuit. They are of utmost importance to me all along as well. Upon being notified of your inquiries, I have made them our highest priority and immediately took steps to look into the concerns you raised with the team and collaborators and carefully re-examined our manuscripts and raw data and lab records. We’ll work with the relevant journal editorial office(s) immediately if our investigation indicates any risk to the highest degree of accuracy of the published records.

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 and our work’s reproducibility. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for any lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership and the concerns you raised serve as a fresh reminder to me just how important my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short. I feel therefore very heavy-hearted and tremendously sorry, to my current and former students, my staff and colleagues, my peers, and the larger community. I most sincerely apologize for any oversight on my part and any inconvenience it might have caused. I’ll use this as an invaluable learning opportunity to do better not only in advancing science, but also in safeguarding the accuracy and integrity of science.

Yours sincerely,

Xuetao Cao”

Caption contest! Still from Great Hall of People rally.

The next day, on 18 November, a source from the Chinese Academy of Engineering (of which Cao is member) was quoted in a newspaper:

We have already learned about the complaints about Academician Xuetao Cao on the internet. We will investigate and handle this matter, but it will take time to further investigate and deal with it. Regarding how the investigation should be handled, I do not have information regarding the latest plan. All I can say is that we [The Academy of Engineering of China] will definitely investigate

Archived website here

There was even English language coverage, as the dams broke. China’s top scientist Cao can now brace himself for retractions, especially since he unwisely published a number of problematic papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Where he already had to retract one in 2015, for massive data fakery. This is what Wang et al JBC 2008 was hiding:

The Chairman Cao show is just beginning. His speech at The Great Hall of People, on research integrity no less, provoked a storm even this genius general won’t be able to ride out. The article will be updated.

Proof his research can’t be all fake: Chairman Cao (left), with A Pipette. (source: XuetaoCao.org)

There is now a sequel: please read this expose by Smut Clyde, on the subject of Chairman Cao’s Flaw Cytometry. Contains quotes from the Great Hall of People speech and recent updates!


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28 comments on “The Teachings of Chairman Cao

  1. Sorry to say this, but I suspect that the chairman would think fraud, and the resulting number of publications that come from it, really is worth sitting next to a bunch of others who got Nobel prizes (based on the work that their post-docs did) . He probably got one hell of a dopamine high than night, and plenty of shots of serotonin to follow with for months. Money for nothing, and his chicks for free (dire straits).

    Science, and in particular, research in chemistry, is our best hope for saving the world from consequences of climate change. Ain’t gonna happen when large areas of research are corrupted to bolster someone’s bloated ego, as evidenced in this depressing report. No doubt “Mike” wants to be the next Chairman Cao!

    Like

  2. I have for years warned against blind/naive embracement of Chinese research.

    It is simply unrealistic to expect a nation that went through a forceful destruction of the concepts of individuality and morale (Mao revolution) to suddenly pop up as a major player in science.

    Corruption and fraud is at the very foundation of a communistic dictatorship. It’s absurd to believe science can be done in such an environment without major cases like this one.

    Nature Publishing Group and many others including western universities embedding departments and journals into this environment has done science no favour.

    Now in 2019 we are even witnessing an increasingly aggressive, abusive and authoritarian Chinese dictatorship. Now is the time to push back hard, very hard.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I largely agree with this statement. But if I said this truth in from of faculty at the R1 research university who like to think of themselves as renaissance men and women, I would be labeled a fraud and fired immediately. Again, its not race, its culture.

      I’m a America permadoc, who has a bad relationship with my family because I didn’t get to the position of making tons of money in science that my parents expected. But I think my culture instilled in me this idea that I cannot cheat. I really think this is missing in a lot of non western cultures.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you will find there is plenty of Scientific fraud in a lot of western countries too. Just look at the other articles from this website. So before you try and pin it on ‘culture’ or Chairman Mao you better start taking a hard look at your own backyard.

        Like

      • The question is less one of culture and more the simple fact that while fraud is always a cheap, fast way to success (and funding), in most western countries the most powerful entity invested in the success of one individual researcher might be their University. In China, it’s the State itself, as evidenced by this guy being made a general, which is probably a largely symbolic investment. The point is, unless the shit really piles up to unbelievable levels (like it’s happening now), it’s in the interest of the all-controlling, all-overseeing, mighty central state to just cover up any scandal, because this is a key factor for its image as well; scientific success itself is part of its propaganda machine.

        Like

  3. alfricabos

    “any authority which would undertake to direct the work of the scientist centrally would bring the progress of science virtually to a standstill” – Michael Polanyi.

    Like

  4. Chinese plagiarism has polluted the scientific field, and many other countries’ papers are based on Chinese fake papers, resulting in more and more garbage. It is increasingly difficult to find a real scientifically valuable article nowadays. Let us launch a campaign to boycott and eliminate the Chinese plagiarism and fake papers. Only in this way can we protect real science.

    Like

  5. Schinia Honesta

    It’s a little bit irritating to read the same arguments again and again: “lapse in supervision or laboratory leadership”, “my role and responsibility are as mentor, supervisor, and lab leader; and how I might have fallen short”, “I […] apologize for any oversight on my part and any inconvenience it might have caused”.

    At first, it might look like an honourable response, Dr Cao makes amends and acknowledges that his supervision was not optimal. It is true that sometimes lack of supervision can lead to scientific misconduct. However, we have already seen many cases of researchers trying to get away with misconduct by saying that their supervision was not optimal (and certainly not only in China). In the present case, I am just not buying it.

    No amount of “lapse in supervision” nor “oversight” can explain such widespread mis-representation of the data. I don’t know about China, but in the research groups I know well (north-west Europe), most students with little or poor supervision do not fabricate data – unless they were actually told to do so and shown how to do it. I don’t believe that students with little or poor supervision would think that re-gating samples and re-labelling blots are proper procedures, if they would not feel safe in doing so. There must be more than just a “lapse in supervision”.

    Like

    • AGREE! So what should we do with the 200,000 more new scientific papers published every year by chinese scholars?

      Like

    • Its “trying to please the boss” to get ahead (make money, gain respect). Give him/her the positive results they need to publish. Don’t ask (advisor),don’t tell (post-doc).

      Quite frankly, half the time I’m very happy to tell the boss he is wrong, because it implies that such a “titularly smart” individual (full prof at R1 research university) really isn’t that great when it comes to driving research forward.

      Like

    • higgsbosoff

      If anything, most students would not be good enough with Photoshop to fake data this convincingly. These are techniques refined over time. A botched job from an impromptu forger is much easier to spot.

      Like

  6. It is no secret that China have a fundamental problem with corruption, e.g. shown by the last report from Transparency International. There is no reason to believe that research is not affected.

    https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018

    The research is of course influenced by this!

    There are plenty of similar cases like the one mentioned here. Recently it was uncovered a large number of highly problematic issues in publications from the research group where professor Jinmin Zhao (President at Guangxi Medical University, Nanning) is the PI and another case at the China Pharmaceutical University, where professor Qinglong Guo is PI (Dean at School of Basic Medicine and Clinical Pharmacy). Both institutions and professors are well known. Zhao and Guo have a long Pubpeer list, which are growing. Worst of all, clinical studies have been initiated or planned based on fraud.

    Yes, there are many examples of dead serious cases from US and Europe (I can mention Virginia Commonwealth Univiersity and MD Anderson Cancer Center, which have previously been discussed by Leonid). But China is in another fraud division. Research fraud is institutionalized and apparently accepted by the state.

    It sometimes happens that I actually still trust scientific papers from US and Europe, but never from China.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Elisabeth for President contro Chairman Cao - Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it

  8. “A fish rots from the head down”. Ironically, it seems that this old saying was coined in China. However, the true origin is still controversial. Could be a fake proverb from China.

    Like

  9. Smut Clyde

    You have barely touched on the FACS plots! There is room here for a sequel…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Scientific Fraud in China | NeuroLogica Blog

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  12. alfricabos

    In response to the comment that “great scientists need great mentors to lead the way”, I would like to remind Nature the words of Santiago Jamon y Cajal: “Eminent investigators are not spellbound or overly impressed by the work of their predecessors and mentors but instead observe and question.” Western science has thrived in a culture of dissent – which is not tolerated in China.

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  13. Pingback: Concerns about a top immunology lab – Science Integrity Digest

  14. Pingback: A Research Scandal in China - Chemist.gr

  15. I had had worked in a Chinese university where scientific fraud is absolutely rejected, and all submitted student thesis should be accompanied by original data. It is not common to see such scales of fraud in China. This kind of fraud has also been found in western countries. It is not true that the Chinese leadership encourages fraud in science; after all, only good science can promote economic development. That Political dissent is not allowed does not mean scientific dissent is not allowed;

    Like

    • “after all, only good science can promote economic development”

      That is not obvious. Just sell anything to anybody.

      Like

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  17. China’s Lysenko.

    Like

  18. Pingback: Scientific Fraud in China – Science-Based Medicine

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