Controversial Articles Retracted from Top Chinese Journal

  • Potential academic sabotage for an 8 million RMB prize?
  • Two articles suddenly attracted lots of interests online and stirred up a huge discussion in China.
  • The involved tutor, Cheng Guodong, is an academician at CAS, the highest academic honor in China.

In 2013, two academic articles entitled “Theory and Practice of Ecological Economics Integration Framework” were published in the Journal of Glaciology and Geocryology, a top Chinese journal on ice, snow, permafrost and frozen circle. The author, Xu Zhongmin, was then already a doctoral advisor and senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), the number one research institute in the world, ranked by Nature Index. In the beginning of 2020, these two articles suddenly attracted lots of interests online and stirred up a huge discussion in China.

The author of the articles.

The articles, despite their seemingly traditional academic titles, do not go on to elaborate too much about the subject (link1)(link2). In the abstract, Xu stated that the articles serve to describe the “the nobleness of my tutor and the beautifulness of his wife.” The author then used over 35 pages to admire the love story between Xu’s academic tutor and his wife and how this couple has greatly inspired Xu. By coincidence or not, Xu’s tutor, Cheng Guodong, is the editor-in-chief of this journal.

On Zhihu, many posts say that it is understandable to compliment one’s academic tutor with a few lines at the end of papers, but Xu went way too far on this. Some, however, think that these two articles are quite the opposite of what they seem like.

The way Xu wrote the articles makes you think sometimes that he is actually complaining. For example, Xu wrote “I got inspired by my tutor more from the small talks that we have outside of classes, and the topics are mostly unrelated to my major” and “the wife of my tutor is a traditional Chinese woman, with her appearance and abilities, staying at home serving my tutor is her way of finding herself.”

The articles were funded with more than $289K.

Notwithstanding, most online posts are asking how the paper passed peer review and got published in a top journal, and what the 2M RMB ($289K) in research funds were spent on.

The involved tutor, Cheng Guodong, is an academician at CAS, the highest academic honor in China. He stated in an interview that he has basically retired since 2011 and that he paid very little attention to the journal since then. He was not informed of the publication of these two articles. He felt very sorry for being irresponsible and stated he had officially applied to resigning as the editor-in-chief of the journal.

Cheng Guodong.

The journal also posted an announcement stating that they apologize for not having reviewed the articles strictly enough before publishing, and that these two articles would be retracted right away. Internet users are rushing to the journal’s official website to download the articles before they are taken down. So far, these two articles have been downloaded more than ten thousand times, while other articles by the same author usually get less than one thousand downloads.

Just a few days ago on January 10, two Chinese academicians, Huang Xuhua and Zeng Qingcun, won the Highest Science and Technology Award (HSTA) of 2019. The HSTA (or China’s Nobel Prize) is the highest scientific award in China. Each winner can get a prize of 8M RMB ($1.16 million).

Download counts have surged these days.

On January 7, Gansu province announced that it will nominate Cheng Guodong for the HSTA of 2020. After all these years of silence, the sudden discussion on these two articles can easily being connected to a conspiracy. People are speculating that some other candidate for HSTA of 2020 might have dug up these articles in order to disqualify Cheng Guodong. Considering the heat generated by the discussions on this topic on Zhihu and Weibo, expect the story to get even more interesting in few days.

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