Shi-min Fang has held research posts at the University of Rochester in New York and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. He is now a freelance science writer. He just won the inaugural Maddox Prize for exposing scientific misconduct in his native China.
Jon White: You've just won the inaugural Maddox Prize, awarded for your continuing work exposing scientific misconduct in China despite the threats you face. How does that feel?
Shi-min Fang: I am thrilled and honored. There are many people who are supporting me and fighting with me, so I consider this award as an acknowledgement of all our efforts, not just mine.
JW: What prompted you to start challenging dubious pseudoscientific claims in China?
SF: In 1998, after eight years studying in the United States, I returned to China and was shocked to see it was deluged with pseudoscience, superstitions, and scientific misconduct.
JW: What action did you decide to take?
SF: I had created a Chinese website called New Threads in 1994 when I was a graduate student at Michigan State University as a forum for sharing Chinese classics and literature. From 2000, I started to publish articles on the site fighting scientific misconduct and fraud. Eventually, New Threads became a flagship for those fighting pseudoscience, misconduct, fraud, and corruption among the Chinese science community.
JW: Are dubious claims a big problem in China?
SF: The majority of cases exposed are plagiarism, the exaggeration of academic credentials, and faked research papers, which are endemic in China.
JW: Tell me about some of them.
SF: A typical case was the nucleic acid "nutrition" scheme—supplements promoted to boost energy levels in the tired, pregnant, and old. It involved more than a dozen Chinese biochemists and was the first that brought wide media coverage, both domestically and internationally. New Threads has exposed more than 1,000 cases of scientific fraud.
JW: Why is science fraud such a problem in China?
SF: It is the result of interactions between totalitarianism; the lack of freedom of speech, press, and academic research; extreme capitalism that tries to commercialize everything including science and education; traditional culture; the lack of scientific spirit; the culture of saving face, and so on. It's also because there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate, and punish academic misconduct. The cheaters don't have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.
JW: What have been the worst moments?
SF: I have been sued more than 10 times. Because the Chinese legal system is very corrupt and a ruling is not always made according to the evidence, it is not surprising that I have lost some libel cases even though I did nothing wrong. In one of these, a local court at Wuhan ordered me to pay 40,000 yuan (about $6,400) in compensation and transferred the money from my wife's account. I have also narrowly escaped from an attack with pepper spray and a hammer.
JW: Has it been worth it?
SF: Yes. I fully understand the risk I am facing and am willing to take it. What troubles me most is that my wife and my young daughter also have to endure vituperation and personal attacks.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.