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7.10.10

Fraud in science: What's in a name?

Bradley Voytek Hello my name is


So everyone's all atwitter about this NYT article, "Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent".

I find it interesting that no one's been mentioning the feature in Nature a few years back about China's "identity crisis".

The NYT piece highlights a lot of issues in scientific (mis)conduct, but the Nature feature was far more fascinating in terms of how scientists can game the flaws in the scientific publishing industry.

In the Metafilter thread on the Nature piece, one of the commentors linked to a few news articles about Chinese names. According to Xinhua:

Only 4,100 different Chinese surnames have been found to exist out of a sample of 300 million Chinese people, according to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

This issue is apparently quite problematic for law enforcement and, according to Rueters, the Chinese police have been considering alternatives to traditional naming conventions:

At least 100,000 people share the name "Wang Tao", the China Daily said, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences... China has 1,601 surnames in total. According to the new regulations, Arab numbers, foreign languages and symbols that do not belong to Chinese minority languages would all be banned.

But, as Nature pointed out, this isn't just a law enforcement issue, it's also an easy way to commit academic fraud.

Jia Wei, associate dean at the pharmacy school of Shanghai Jiao Tong University can remember hundreds of metabolic pathways by heart, but he gets confused by his graduate students' publications. Three of his students—Wang Xiao-yan, Wang Xiao-rong and Wang Xiao-xue... have completely different two-character given names in Chinese, but all publish under the abbreviated name X. Wang. “I really have a hard time sorting out who has published what,” Jia sighs.

After setting an establishing example for the problem, they continue:

The [naming] problem is sufficiently widespread that some researchers have taken advantage of the ambiguity. Surgeon Liu Hui, who padded his CV with publications by another researcher who shared his surname and initial, rose to become an assistant dean at the prestigious Tsinghua University. But the discrepancies were noticed and he was dismissed by the university in March 2006.

As science becomes less WEIRD and more globalized these kinds of issues become more problematic.

In south India, women may not have surnames and are forced to adopt them to publish in science (with this caveat):

Indians from the south traditionally do not have surnames. It is only when forced to comply with Western naming standards that they use their father's given name as a substitute. As a consequence, journal rules require them to publish research under the fathers' given names (with which we—Nalini, Jeevananthinee and Sujatha—also sign this Correspondence letter). Obviously, as young south Indian scientists making a contribution to science, we would prefer to be identified with our first names and not by our fathers' given names.

Naming issues also affect citation rankings.

On the one hand, it surprises me that a technological solution hasn't been widely instantiated to address this. On the other, this is obviously a complex issue and getting a wide array of publishers, databases, etc. all to cooperate and adopt the same standards would be a ridiculously impossible job. As my wife would tell me, database standards are not quick to get adopted. People are slow to change.

EDIT: Note my wife's comment (and correction to my assumption about what she would say) below.