News this Week

Science  29 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6162, pp. 1024
  1. Around the World

    1 - New York City
    'Dueling Dinos' Fail to Sell
    2 - Raleigh
    Science Museum in Tiff Over Climate Change Film
    3 - Santiago
    Guanacos Enlisted for Restoration
    4 - Beijing
    Chinese Leaders Call for Academic Reform
    5 - Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia
    ESA Targets Magnetic Mysteries

    New York City

    'Dueling Dinos' Fail to Sell

    No takers.

    The "dueling dinosaur" fossil will remain on the market.

    CREDIT: CK PREPARATIONS

    The New York auction house Bonhams pulled a controversial fossil from the auction block last week when the final offer fell short of the seller's minimum price. The specimen includes two dinosaurs, from the families Ceratopsidae and Tyrannosauridae, discovered in 2006 in Montana by commercial fossil hunter Clayton Phipps. The two were found touching, with missing teeth and shattered chest bones suggestive to some of mortal combat, so Phipps dubbed them "The Dueling Dinosaurs."

    Phipps is legally entitled to sell his discovery, but some paleontologists say the fossil is scientifically valuable and fear it will fall to a private collector who won't allow detailed study. If that happens, "then someone might as well walk up to it with a sledgehammer and turn it to dust," says paleontologist Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

    The final offer of $5.5 million didn't meet Phipps's asking price (somewhere between $5.5 million and $7 million), but Bonhams representatives are confident the fossil will eventually sell and say that several public institutions are interested. http://scim.ag/_dino

    Raleigh

    Science Museum in Tiff Over Climate Change Film

    The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has sparked controversy by declining to show an hourlong film about rising sea levels. The museum is run by the state government, which has been hostile to action on climate change, but Director Emlyn Koster denies avoiding the topic. "I have a track record of dealing with these issues head on," he says.

    Last month, the museum was asked to show the film Shored Up as part of its weekly Science Café. Director Ben Kalina says he hoped the screening would spark dialogue, because the museum is across the street from the state Capitol.

    On 13 November, Koster declined, saying the film was not suitable by itself for the complex and controversial topic. "I take him at his word when he says they have a robust way of treating these issues," says social scientist Michael Orbach of Duke University's Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, of Koster's decision, but he wonders how and when the museum will tackle the subject. http://scim.ag/_NCfilm

    Santiago

    Guanacos Enlisted for Restoration

    Homecoming.

    Guanacos in a Chilean breeding facility will soon be released to restore the espinal.

    CREDIT: MEREDITH ROOT-BERNSTEIN

    Centuries after being hunted to extinction in central Chile, the guanaco will return next month as part of the country's first rewilding project. Scientists hope the llamalike animal, still roaming wild in the north and south, will help restore the espinal, a semiarid ecosystem used to raise livestock and viewed by many Chileans as hopelessly degraded.

    Ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and her colleagues recently discovered that the espino, a spiny tree that dominates the landscape, grew back more robustly after a good pruning, a likely adaptation to munching guanacos—the espinal's only native large herbivores. Reintroduced guanacos could return withered espinos to health, making the espinal shadier and more hospitable to both wild animals and economically important livestock. "Instead of putting a domestic animal in a wild landscape, we're putting a wild animal in a domestic landscape," Root-Bernstein explains.

    The team will move six guanacos into a fenced region of the espinal and monitor the ecosystem to determine if more should be added elsewhere.

    Beijing

    Chinese Leaders Call for Academic Reform

    Scientists in China have found something to cheer about within a lengthy 15 November document from Communist Party leaders: a long hoped-for reform of the country's academy membership system. Beyond the expected plans for economic and legal overhaul, the document called for changes to the election, management, and retirement policies for Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) members, known as yuanshi. With the prestige of being a yuanshi come special privileges, such as a lifetime appointment. The system has come under criticism amid scandals, including attempted bribery for membership.

    Some doubt that the move will fix fundamental problems in Chinese academia. "Top-down interference will only produce the opposite results," says Cao Cong, a sociologist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, who specializes in China's scientific community.

    What the reform will entail is not yet clear. An adviser to CAS who asked to remain anonymous says he suspects the academy was caught off-guard by such a high-level show of disapproval, but will likely present a timeline for reform measures at a meeting next June. http://scim.ag/_CAS

    Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia

    ESA Targets Magnetic Mysteries

    Artist's conception of Swarm.

    CREDIT: ESA–P. CARRIL, 2013

    A constellation of three satellites launched by the European Space Agency on 22 November will map Earth's magnetic field in unprecedented detail. The mission, called Swarm, will probe the sources of the field, why it changes, and how it protects Earth from the solar wind.

    The ever-shifting magnetic field comes mostly from molten iron churning in Earth's outer core, but also from rocks in the crust, ocean currents, and particle flows in the atmosphere. Understanding this field is essential for satellite navigation and mineral prospecting as well as predicting space weather—the field acts as a protective bubble, deflecting the charged particles that stream past Earth in the solar wind.

    The car-sized satellites, launched together from the Plesetsk spaceport in Russia, carry magnetic and electric field sensors to tease out magnetic field sources around the globe.

  2. Random Sample

    ScienceLIVE

    Join us on Thursday, 5 December, at 3 p.m. EST for a live chat with experts on whether animals should have legal rights. http://scim.ag/science-live

    They Said It

    "For America, this is our last chance to be first, and even the very movement of planets seems to be saying 'Go.' "

    —Report from billionaire Dennis Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation on a manned flyby mission proposed for the 2017 alignment of Mars and Earth.

    A Message in the Sand

    CREDIT: TEDXLIVERMORE; (INSET) PAHO/WHO

    Usually, lengthy newspaper or magazine stories win the Communications Award of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). But this year's winner was a surprise: A story told using sand and light by Shelly Xie, a student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

    As a biology undergrad at Stanford University, Xie studied schistosomiasis, a little-known parasitic disease that kills an estimated 300,000 annually. She decided to use her time at The Senior Reflection, a Stanford program that lets life science students explore the arts, to raise awareness. Xie's medium is sand animation, in which artists use their hands to draw images in a thin layer of sand atop a lightbox. Her striking 10-minute performance, which includes music and narration (http://bit.ly/1eiFmSd), tells the story of a young Ghanaian mother suffering from schistosomiasis. Xie performed it at a TEDx event in Livermore, California, in June.

    "People are very surprised how much they can learn about science through this art form," says Xie, who—besides a trophy and $2000—won a trip to the ASTMH annual meeting in Washington, D.C., where she performed a new piece on hookworm disease.

    By the Numbers

    72% Portion of scientists who feel it is "very important" that scientific papers be freely accessible to the public, according to 254 respondents to an online survey conducted by Science. http://scim.ag/survOA

    29, 32 Successive records set last week for number of satellites deployed in a single launch, aboard NASA's Minotaur 1 and Russia's Dnepr rocket, respectively.

  3. Newsmakers

    Sequencing Pioneer Dies at 95

    Sanger

    CREDIT: © SCITECH IMAGE/ALAMY

    Double Nobel Prize–winning British biochemist Frederick Sanger died on 19 November at the age of 95. The ever self-effacing scientist, who turned down the offer of knighthood, spent his whole career at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, also in Cambridge.

    When he began studying the protein insulin in the mid-1940s, biochemists thought that proteins were amorphous. Through meticulous amino acid mapping, Sanger showed that insulin, and presumably other proteins, had a precise structure—a conclusion that won him the 1958 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

    He went on to develop methods for sequencing RNA and DNA: His 1977 "dideoxy" chain-termination method dramatically speeded sequencing and won him a share of the 1980 Nobel chemistry prize. The technique was later used to sequence the human genome. Sanger is one of only four people to win two Nobel Prizes and the only person to win two chemistry prizes. In 1992, the United Kingdom's new sequencing laboratory near Cambridge was named the Sanger Centre in his honor.

    "Fred was an inspiration to many, for his brilliant work, for his quiet determination and for his modesty. He was an outstanding investigator, with a dogged determination to solve questions that have led to transformations in how we perceive our world," said Mike Stratton, director of what is now the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in a statement.

  4. The Life Force

    1. Robert F. Service

    Step by grueling step, Jack Szostak is pushing through the barriers that keep him from his goal: making living cells from scratch in the lab.

    Creation scientist.

    Jack Szostak is working to recreate a recipe that transformed chemistry into biology.

    CREDIT: BRYCE VICKMARK/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

    Jack Szostak knows he'll never realize his ultimate scientific dream. But if he pulls off number two on his list, "it will go down in history as the greatest experimental achievement ever," says John Sutherland, an organic chemist at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K. Not bad for a backup.

    Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has already accomplished some spectacular science. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for helping to reveal the role of telomeres, the end bits of chromosomes that help protect genetic instructions during cell division. But more than a decade ago, Szostak shifted his lab's focus to exploring how life on Earth may have gotten its start. He would dearly love to know the recipe for the primordial soup in which it all began some 4 billion years ago. That recipe is almost assuredly lost to history. "We don't have a time machine," Szostak says. "We can't go back."

    So he hopes to do the next best thing: fiddle around with a few ingredients of his own and watch as they spontaneously assemble themselves into genes inside simplified cells that copy themselves and demonstrate the first emergent signs of Darwinian evolution. The origin of life. Again. Only this time in a lab.

    Divide and conquer.

    Protocells that assemble themselves and split might undergo Darwinian evolution.

    CREDIT: JANET IWASA/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH

    A lab demonstration wouldn't prove that life emerged the same way, Szostak says, but it would begin to tell a plausible story about how chemistry made the transition to biology. "If we can do that, to me it would give us a pretty good understanding of how life got started."

    It's a big if. But on page 1098, Szostak and Katarzyna Adamala, his former graduate student and now a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, report taking a major step in that direction. For the first time, they found a recipe that promotes RNA copying inside primitive "protocells." It's not life in the lab—not yet—but other origin-of-life researchers are watching closely, says Gerald Joyce, a chemist and origin-of-life researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. "You never want to bet against Jack," Joyce says. "He has a really good nose for where to go."

    For an RNA-containing protocell to display Darwinian evolution, Szostak says eight large problems must be surmounted (see table, p. 1034). His lab has already solved three, and he says it is closing in on another three. That leaves two to go. "It's tantalizing," Szostak says. "We're close." And he's not the only one who thinks so. "I'd be hugely surprised if we don't get to that [during my career]," says Matthew Powner, a former postdoctoral assistant of Szostak's who now runs his own lab at University College London. "There is tangible excitement that this can be solved and this will mean something big."

    In the beginning

    In tackling the origin of life, Szostak is taking on one of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked—second only to the origin of the universe itself. For millennia, it lay in the realm of philosophy, theology, and alchemy. Science got in on the act in a systematic way in the mid-20th century, after researchers discovered the structures of DNA and RNA and their central role in coding for proteins, the chemical workhorses of the cell. In a host of now-classic experiments, scientists probed how potential building blocks of life such as amino acids and nucleic acids could be synthesized from simple compounds under conditions thought to have prevailed on early Earth. Progress was rapid and spirits high. "Laboratories will be creating a living cell within ten years," Colin Pittendrigh, an American biologist, predicted in 1967.

    Then things got complicated. Researchers realized that creating the raw ingredients of life wasn't enough: They also needed to explain how those compounds assembled themselves and evolved into the sophisticated living cells on Earth today. Life required not just the right ingredients, but also the right molecular tools. In the late 1960s, a trio of biologists—Francis Crick, Carl Woese, and Leslie Orgel—independently proposed that RNA could serve two roles. What came to be known as the "RNA World" hypothesis holds that RNA existed long before DNA, catalyzed its own reproduction, and helped give life its start. Others believed RNA wasn't up to the task and proposed alternatives for the earliest biochemistry, developing the "peptide world," "lipid world," and "metabolism first" scenarios for life's origin. Conferences on the subject became shouting matches. "They all fought each other tooth and nail," Sutherland says. "People wondered, 'How on Earth do you solve this problem?'"

    Throughout most of history, the answer had been simple: divine intervention. Szostak, though, takes pleasure in pushing back the borders of the supernatural. "To me it's very satisfying to find natural explanations for problems that were so complex that people had to resort to magic," he says. But he insists that he is not a philosopher; he simply likes to solve problems at the lab bench.

    Szostak has had a practical bent for most of his life. The eldest child of an aeronautical engineer father and a mother who held down various jobs, he grew up in Ottawa and Montreal. As a child, his parents took him to church and Sunday school but weren't particularly devout themselves. "When I was 12, I said I'm not going to do that anymore," Szostak says; his parents seemed more relieved than anything else.

    In his teens, Szostak became absorbed in chemistry. His mother was working as a librarian for a chemical company and used to bring home ingredients for his basement lab. His early experiments left "a few little scars," Szostak says. But he chuckles, "I still have all my fingers."

    After earning an undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal in 1972, Szostak moved to Cornell University to work with biologist Ray Wu. Wu's lab was racing to synthesize DNA fragments that could detect messenger RNA—the form of RNA that carries copies of genes to ribosomes, which translate their code into proteins. Wu's lab lost out by a few months to British biologist Michael Smith. Szostak didn't come in second often after that.

    After setting up his own lab, Szostak plunged into the burgeoning field of genetics. He helped develop the yeast artificial chromosome, a technique that was widely used to identify, clone, and manipulate genes. He identified the specialized sequences of telomeres and helped show how they aid in cell division and how telomeres contribute to cell aging, hereditary diseases, and cancer.

    Szostak's success brought other researchers flocking to work with telomeres. "The field was getting crowded," Szostak says. "I thought maybe it was time to do something different." He drew inspiration from experiments by Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Sidney Altman of Yale University, for which they won their own Nobel in 1989. In the early 1980s, Cech and Altman found that RNA not only serves as a genetic mail carrier but can also catalyze chemical reactions. Because that role was previously thought to be the sole domain of proteins, the finding bolstered the RNA World hypothesis.

    In the early 1990s, Szostak switched his lab's focus to RNA catalysts, known as ribozymes. He and his colleagues invented a scheme for evolving new ribozymes in the lab, in a process known as in vitro selection. (Joyce's group at Scripps carried out similar work.) In 1995, Szostak and former students Eric Ekland and David Bartel used the technique to produce the first RNA catalyst capable of welding two other pieces of RNA together. A year later, Ekland and Bartel announced that they had found an RNA catalyst capable of serving as an RNA polymerase, the enzyme that living cells use to produce new copies of an RNA strand.

    RNA was proving increasingly versatile, with multiple roles previously reserved for DNA and proteins. In 2000, researchers at Yale discovered that even the catalytic heart of the ribosome is an RNA-based ribozyme. Here was a possible relic of the RNA World, strongly supporting the idea that early life ran on RNA and only later evolved the ability to build chemically superior proteins.

    Szostak found himself thinking more and more about the RNA World. The hypothesis had its problems, he realized. "RNA brings with it a lot of baggage," Szostak says. It is a fragile molecule, so researchers would need to explain how it could have survived conditions on early Earth. They would also need to explain how long RNA chains formed, were copied, split apart, and sent to daughter cells—the cycle of replication that is basic to life.

    Most fundamentally, it wasn't at all clear how an RNA fragment drifting around in a warm pond or stuck on a fleck of mineral could have spawned variants that would have reproduced more or less rapidly, allowing "fitter" variants to outcompete others. What allowed primordial RNA to evolve?

    All of the above

    After numerous conversations with other origin-of-life researchers, Szostak became convinced that RNA couldn't have done it alone. The molecules needed to be isolated and confined. Some sort of cell membrane probably was needed, both to concentrate the ingredients of life and to promote a Darwinian process. "If [chemistry] is compartmentalized, you keep molecules related by descent together," Szostak explains. If an RNA-containing protocell arises and can grow and divide better than its neighbors can, it can pass its advantages to its progeny. The protocells would allow fitter molecules to flourish, in true Darwinian fashion.

    "I thought, 'Well, I've never worked on membranes before,' " Szostak says. " 'Maybe it's time to do so.' ;" Protocell membranes, he knew, must have been very different from those of modern cells. Current cell membranes are made from fats called phospholipids and are all but impenetrable to key ingredients of life such as amino acids and nucleic acids. Without the modern biochemical apparatus of protein-based pores and pumps, nutrients cannot get in and waste products can't get out.

    Szostak and his students found an alternative. They discovered that far simpler fatty acid molecules could form leaky cell-like spheres that allowed ions, amino acids, and nucleic acids to diffuse in. In 2008, Szostak's team reported that RNA nucleotides, or building blocks, could enter these cells and then form growing RNA chains that were too big to diffuse back out. A year later, Szostak and his graduate student Ting Zhu found that adding extra fatty acid molecules to the mix caused existing protocells to grow. Then, modest shear forces—such as those that protocells might experience when flowing through a column of warm water near a volcanic vent—would stress the large spheres until they divided, and any RNA inside them would be partitioned among the daughter cells. Yet another paper showed that RNA or peptide catalysts would speed the incorporation of additional fatty acid molecules into protocells, promoting their growth. Crude as they were, fatty acid vesicles appeared to be up to the job.

    What about the other key component, RNA? Advances both in Szostak's lab and elsewhere showed that, with the right mix of ingredients, individual RNA nucleotides would bind to a sister "template" strand in a copying process without the enzymes required inside modern cells. That was good news—but researchers couldn't make it happen inside a protocell.

    The biggest problem was that one of the most important ingredients for copying an RNA template without added enzymes is charged magnesium ions (Mg2+). Take away Mg2+ and the reaction proceeds so slowly, it's hard to imagine how it could have been relevant to early life. But Mg2+ has downsides. The ions rip apart fatty acid protocells and shred growing RNA chains as fast as they build them up.

    Adamala says she tried adding hundreds of different compounds and short peptides to the mix. "Nothing worked," she says. "It was very frustrating." But then she turned to metal-binding compounds called chelators, and one gave her the result she was looking for. In their current paper, Adamala and Szostak report that when they added a bit of a simple citric acid derivative called citrate to the mix, they got a perfect Goldilocks result. The citrate bound the Mg2+ ions tightly enough to keep the ions from tearing apart either the RNA or the fatty acid membranes, but loosely enough to give the Mg2+ ions leeway to copy a template RNA strand.

    "It's a beautiful paper," Sutherland says. Citrate itself is a tantalizing solution, he says. It also plays a key metabolic role in modern cells, which suggests that it, too, could be a molecular fossil left over from early evolution.

    Equally important, Sutherland says, is that for the first time, all the various pieces of the protolife puzzle seem to be coming together. "The big picture is it's not an RNA world, a peptide world, a lipid world. It only works if everything is connected," Sutherland says. George Cody, an organic geochemist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., agrees. "In the beginning, all these had to be in play," he says.

    Next, Szostak says, his team must overcome two large hurdles: The researchers must show how individual RNA bases could have become chemically "activated" so they would readily bind to growing RNA strands. Then they must demonstrate how RNA strands can duplicate without a starter template strand to help the nucleotides come together to form the complementary strand. Sutherland thinks these are solvable problems. "There's no reason it shouldn't be possible to recreate [a replicating cell]," he says.

    Even if Szostak's experiment works, there will still be plenty of unanswered questions. Among them: What prebiotic processes would have produced the RNA nucleotides and other mix of ingredients that would have gone into an early protocell? It's also not clear that an evolving protocell made in the lab would have any broader significance, says Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, an organic chemist at Scripps. "Pushing its relevance to what happened 4 billion years ago is a risky thing."

    But Szostak argues that such dismissals are too facile. Such a "cell" would help define the chemistry that must have been involved at some level to get a self-replicating system going. Sutherland likens it to a crossword puzzle. As you begin to fill in words in some of the open squares, the options narrow for the words that intersect each known word. The puzzle shrinks, making subsequent answers easier. For someone aiming to show that the puzzle of life's origin didn't solve itself by magic, that would be a satisfying result indeed.

  5. China's Publication Bazaar

    1. Mara Hvistendahl*

    A Science investigation has uncovered a smorgasbord of questionable practices including paying for author's slots on papers written by other scientists and buying papers from online brokers.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM AKINDO/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

    SHANGHAI, CHINA—The e-mail arrived around noon from the mysterious sender "Publish SCI Paper," with the subject line "Transfer co-first author and co-corresponding author." A message body uncluttered with pleasantries contained a scientific abstract with all the usual ingredients, bar one: author names. The message said that the paper, describing a potential strategy for curbing drug resistance in cancer cells, had been accepted by Elsevier's International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Now its authorship was for sale.

    "There are some authors who don't have much use for their papers after they're published, and they can be transferred to you," a sales agent for a company called Wanfang Huizhi told a Science reporter posing as a scientist. Wanfang Huizhi, the agent explained, acts as an intermediary between researchers with forthcoming papers in good journals and scientists needing to snag publications. The company would sell the title of co–first author on the cancer paper for 90,000 yuan ($14,800). Adding two names—co–first author and co–corresponding author—would run $26,300, with a deposit due upon acceptance and the rest on publication. A purported sales document from Wanfang Huizhi obtained by Science touts the convenience of this kind of arrangement: "You only need to pay attention to your academic research. The heavy labor can be left to us. Our service can help you make progress in your academic path!"

    On 6 July, a few weeks after our conversation with the sales agent took place, the paper appeared online in the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology. The print version followed in September, roughly when the agent said it would. The title and abstract had undergone minor revisions from the e-mail solicitation.

    Speaking volumes.

    Since 2000, Chinese papers have increased sixfold in Thomson Reuters' SCI Expanded, a database of more than 8500 journals.

    CREDIT: THOMSON REUTERS

    But the list of authors was transformed. On the published paper, two first authors share the honor. (Our reporter did not pay for authorship.) Interviews with authors and with the journal's editors confirmed that a first author was added on 11 June, approximately a week after our reporter received the abstract; all deny knowledge of anyone having paid for authorship. Following an inquiry from Science, an investigation by the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology found that a total of four authors had been added, and two dropped. (The exuberant agent had erred on one detail during our June conversation with her: By then, the paper had undergone one round of review, but had not yet been accepted. The resubmitted version with a different author lineup was accepted soon after.)

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM AKINDO/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

    Earlier this month, Science told Wanfang Huizhi about our undercover operation. In an e-mailed response, Huang Wei, who identified himself as Wanfang Huizhi's manager, denied that his firm sells authorship. The sales document that Science had obtained was not authentic, he said, because it did not bear his company's official seal. Wanfang Huizhi helps authors with "language polishing, editing, and submission of manuscripts," he wrote, so it is "very probable" that the cancer paper's authors had sought editing help from the firm. Our reporter may have encountered a rogue employee or former employee who had "gone through irregular channels" to hawk authorship on the side, Huang wrote. He stated that Wanfang Huizhi would investigate the matter.

    The sales agent's offer is far from an anomaly in China's publishing scene. A 5-month investigation by Science has uncovered a flourishing academic black market involving shady agencies, corrupt scientists, and compromised editors—many of them operating in plain view. The commodity: papers in journals indexed by Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index (SCI), Thomson Reuters' Social Sciences Citation Index, and Elsevier's Engineering Index. Science has documented authorship fees ranging from $1600 to $26,300. At the high end, fees exceed the annual salary of some Chinese assistant professors. But SCI papers—particularly those published in journals with a high impact factor—are so critical to getting promotions that researchers shell out. As Fan Dongsheng, a neurologist and former vice president of Peking University Third Hospital, puts it: "People are sparing no expense in order to get published in international journals."

    The options include not just paying for an author's slot on a paper written by other scientists but also self-plagiarizing by translating a paper already published in Chinese and resubmitting it in English; hiring a ghostwriter to compose a paper from faked or independently gathered data; or simply buying a paper from an online catalog of manuscripts—often with a guarantee of publication.

    Offering these services are brokers who hawk titles and SCI paper abstracts from their perches in China; individuals such as a Chinese graduate student who keeps a blog listing unpublished papers for sale; fly-by-night operations that advertise online; and established companies like Wanfang Huizhi that also offer an array of above-board services, such as arranging conferences and producing tailor-made coins and commemorative stamps. Agencies boast at conferences that they can write papers for scientists who lack data. They cold-call journal editors. They troll for customers in chat programs. "SCI papers transfer: papers about cervical cancer; head and neck cancer; kidney cancer; stomach cancer; nano-materials," reads a chat message to one editor. They set up toll-free hotlines.

    Some of the journals in which brokered papers appear belong to Chinese publishers, whereas others are located overseas and owned by publishing giants. Although the agencies market themselves to researchers in fields like medical research, in which time constraints make satisfying promotion requirements especially difficult, scientists in a range of disciplines—even those who publish on academic honesty and publishing ethics—say they have been approached. Nearly all the editors and researchers in China whom Science contacted about SCI paper-selling agencies were aware of their existence.

    Science looked into 27 agencies that trade in SCI papers. Our targets included agencies identified by scientists we interviewed and others we found using Baidu, a popular Chinese Web search engine. Inputting "publish SCI paper" in Baidu pulls up dozens of agencies with websites brazenly touting the sale of papers for publication in SCI-ranked journals. "Ghostwrite and ghost-publish papers…SCI paper publishing," reads one typical description. We targeted the top search results. We also looked into agencies that had purchased ads on Baidu and posted in online publishing forums, focusing on those that seemed most established. Scientists and journal editors in China, many of them speaking under condition of anonymity, helped round out our portrait of the business.

    Posing as graduate students and scientists, Science reporters contacted the selected agencies by phone or via the Chinese messaging service QQ, inquiring about buying authorship on a paper or paying the company to write a paper. A mere five of the 27 companies we contacted refused to write papers or broker authorship. We also tracked individual papers. Some were advertised for sale ahead of publication and have not yet appeared. Others appeared in reputable journals several months after they were proffered.

    Academic honesty has been a hot-button issue in China for years, and officials hoping to project a more international image have repeatedly vowed to address it. Since coming to power in March, President Xi Jinping has spearheaded a broad attack on corruption, with the government taking aim at a spectrum of misbehavior that ranges from bribing officials to pharmaceutical company payoffs (Science, 2 August, p. 445). The campaign has spilled over into scientific publishing: In September, police disguised as gas company employees busted seven people who, operating out of a Beijing apartment, offered space in fake journals and collected publication fees from scientists. Their victims blew up to $650 in fees for papers that never saw the light of day.

    But most of the corrupt publishing practices that Science investigated have no clear victims; scientists, brokers, and some journal editors all benefit. What is at risk, say prominent researchers in China, is China's wider achievement in science. The country has become a powerhouse in scientific publishing: The number of SCI Expanded papers originating in China skyrocketed from 41,417 in 2002 to 193,733 in 2012, ranking it second in the world, after the United States. Corrupt publication practices taint that achievement. "[Some scientists] are publishing better and better papers and getting into top-notch journals, but in the end they don't even know what their papers say," says Cao Zexian, a physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics in Beijing. "They spend a lot of money hiring researchers to write them."

    Skewed incentives

    Chinese-language journals are a prime outlet for the paper-sellers. "The number of articles appearing in Chinese-language journals that has been sold is very high," says one journal editor in Beijing. Many companies investigated by Science offer to sell papers in Chinese-language journals. The purported Wanfang Huizhi sales document delineates the cost of buying articles in "core journals"—a select group of Chinese-language journals ranked by either Peking University, Nanjing University, or the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China.

    For most Chinese scientists, however, the gold standard is English-language journals, especially the 3746 ranked by SCI, a database of citations introduced in 1963 by the Institute for Scientific Information. Thomson Reuters, which now owns the institute, uses the index to compute each journal's "impact factor," a tally of how many times the average article in a journal is cited in a given year. Thomson Reuters bills impact factors as a way to compare journals within fields. Evaluating individual researchers by the impact factor of the journals they publish in is "not something that we advocate," says Nicholas Stipp, business development director with Thomson Reuters in Beijing.

    But in China, "SCI papers have become the yardstick to promote scientists," says Cong Cao, an expert on Chinese science policy at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. The number of papers a researcher has published in SCI-ranked journals over a 5-year period is often the deciding factor in promotions—and typically only papers on which the candidate is a first author or corresponding author count. (Publications in Chinese core journals can be credited toward promotions as well, but a researcher usually must amass many more of them during a short period to meet requirements.) Some universities require Ph.D. students to publish one or more SCI papers to graduate. Incentive schemes have yielded an environment in which scientists "focus on quantity, not quality," wrote Lin Songqing, an editor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, in a paper in Learned Publishing in January. (A running joke in China now is that SCI stands for Stupid Chinese Idea.)

    Pressure to publish is especially acute for medical researchers. Even for doctors, of whom the vast majority in China work in government hospitals or clinics, securing a promotion can hinge on writing SCI papers—regardless of how many patients they see.

    With the stakes so high, ways of gaming the system have cropped up. Researchers who are "eager for quick success or maybe have a low academic level" turn to SCI paper brokerages, says Zhang Yuehong, editor of the Journal of Zhejiang University-SCIENCE in Hangzhou and an advocate for improving journal oversight in China. (The journal is indexed in SCI Expanded.) By passing off bought papers as legitimate research, she says, "they replace pearls with fish eyes."

    Because many promotion schemes in China simply tally up a researcher's total SCI publications without regard to impact factor, some paper-selling agencies target journals with negligible impact factors; a spot in SCI is enough. But Chinese institutions dole out lavish rewards ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars for publishing in highly rated journals—meaning that researchers who pay agencies for papers may get a return on their investment.

    The paper-pushers

    At one end of the spectrum of services offered by China's SCI-paper cottage industry, companies will translate into English a paper published in a Chinese journal. (The purported Wanfang Huizhi document specifies that researchers should avoid submitting Chinese-language papers whose abstracts can be found in PubMed.) In another arrangement called daixie, or "ghostwriting," a scientist will hire an agency to write a paper—a task sometimes farmed out to graduate students—and ensure its publication in a specified journal. Too busy to format papers, prepare citations and graphs according to a journal's specifications, analyze statistics, submit your paper, and answer queries from editors when a paper is in proofs? SCI Science Paper Service Center can handle all of the above, brags its website.

    Several agencies claim they collaborate with specific journals indexed in SCI to guarantee publication. A representative for one company, Haixin, was blunt about the collaborations: "We rely on our guanxi"—a Chinese concept evoking relationships often deepened by exchanging gifts. "To put it simply, we give them money." At least three companies offer to assist scientists who have written a paper and want to ensure its publication. Other firms claim to purchase a set number of pages in journals. Several agencies specified both the journal and issue in which a paper would appear—even though the paper had yet to be written.

    An editor at one SCI journal in China says the journal regularly receives multiple submissions from a single e-mail address. It rejects them under the assumption that the papers are ghostwritten. Other agencies may seek out journal editors willing to enter an arrangement. One editor, who worked for 6 years at a Chinese journal listed in Elsevier's Engineering Index, says that in that time he was approached by scientists in need of papers about 10 times. "They asked me to add their names to the papers of another author," hinting that he would be compensated for the favor. Later, as his own 5-year review approached as a professor, an editor at an SCI Expanded journal offered him an author's slot on a paper in exchange for ghostwriting another paper.

    Other editors say they have never heard of counterparts collaborating on paper-selling deals, and that for an editor at an internationally ranked journal the risks of being on the take are too high. "Many editors are trying hard to improve the quality of their journals, and they hate this kind of fraud," says the former Engineering Index journal editor. "Maybe a small group is engaged in this kind of activity." But, he continues, "It completely destroys the academic environment."

    One seeming conduit for paid publication is the Chinese Medical Journal, an open-access journal published by the Chinese Medical Association. Agents at eight of the companies we contacted claim they can arrange publication in the journal, for fees ranging from $1600 to $4600. Until Science reached the journal's managing director, Wang Mouyue, by phone in late October, the "links" section on the journal's homepage featured the logo of Sciedit, a Guangzhou-based agency whose representative sent a Science reporter an abstract of a paper that was purportedly for sale. But Wang told Science it is "impossible" that Chinese Medical Journal editors take payments for ensuring a paper's publication. "China's paper-publishing market is very large, and there's every sort of agency imaginable out there. But our journal hasn't cooperated with any agency in order to sell articles." The Sciedit logo was later removed from the journal's website. A man who identified himself only as Mr. Wang and claimed to be Sciedit's owner declined to answer questions about collaboration with the Chinese Medical Journal.

    Full service

    Some agencies claim they not only prepare and submit papers for a client: They furnish the data as well. "IT'S UNBELIEVABLE: YOU CAN PUBLISH SCI PAPERS WITHOUT DOING EXPERIMENTS," boasts a flashing banner on Sciedit's website.

    One timesaver: a ready stock of abstracts at hand for clients who need to get published fast. Jiecheng Editing and Translation entices clients on its website with titles of papers that only lack authors. An agency representative told an undercover Science reporter that the company buys data from a national laboratory in Hunan province.

    For scientists who have qualms about attaching their names to data of questionable provenance, many agencies offer to write meta-analyses or review papers, based on already-published data. The fact that review articles can be written without gathering original data has made them wildly popular in China, says Deborah Yang, marketing and sales director for China for Editage, a reputable international editing company, in Shanghai. From 2003 to 2011, the number of meta-analyses from China listed in PubMed increased more than 16 times faster than did meta-analyses from the United States, far outstripping the overall rise in papers from China. Sciedit's Mr. Wang says the reference on his agency's website to publishing without doing experiments refers to meta-analyses. "We don't write [papers], we just help with revisions and language polishing," he wrote in an e-mail to Science.

    A customer service representative with H&G IES told an undercover Sciencereporter that the agency could write a paper and guarantee publication in an international journal. Reached by phone, Kevin Chang, chief editor at H&G IES, elaborated: "If a person doesn't have any data or an article, what we can do at the most is to write a review paper. … We don't make up data." Chang was more cautious in a later e-mail, stating that H&G IES provides only "editing and consulting services, not writing." The customer service representative, he explained, was "undertrained."

    There may be less to many of these agencies than meets the eye. H&G IES's website advertises its "US Root, Global Reach" and, until Science reached Chang, claimed to have representatives serving France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Spain, and Vietnam. But its website includes content only in English and Chinese, and the lone telephone number listed until recently was a Google Voice number. Chang did not respond to questions about the company's size.

    The Chinese paper-selling agencies also inhabit a murky legal space, as several agency representatives acknowledged in chats with an undercover Science reporter. But, at least in some cases, they seem to deliver on their promises. On 21 August 2012, Core Editing advertised authorship for sale on 12 papers listed on its blog. Eight were meta-analyses; the other four were original research. Of the dozen, at least two have since been published by Chinese authors in SCI journals.

    Corresponding authors of the two papers—one published in OncoTargets and Therapy and the other in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences—did not respond to repeated interview requests. An e-mail to the address connected to the QQ messaging service number on Core Editing's blog elicited this reply: "I apologize if the blog's content inadvertently violated certain writers' rights…. If the famous Science Magazine goes so far as to be interested in a personal blog, isn't it making a big fuss over a small issue?" The page advertising papers for sale has since been deleted.

    In those two cases, the brokered papers had not yet been submitted, raising the possibility that any original authors may have transferred the authorship to Core Editing's clients. In an e-mail to Science, Hans-Joachim Schmoll, editor-in-chief of OncoTargets and Therapy, wrote that his journal is investigating the paper and will consider retracting it if the investigation shows its authorship to be suspect. Robert Chen, editor of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, told Science that his journal will pursue a similar course of action.

    Another common brokerage method is bringing on authors after a paper has gone through peer review. Such an approach takes advantage of journal policies allowing authors to be added at late stages—a change sometimes legitimately necessary because of issues raised by reviewers. Such practices have contributed to a boom in co-first authors and co-corresponding authors in China, says Cao Zexian—so common, he jokes, that they're "a Chinese invention."

    At the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, the overhaul of the author list in the paper purportedly brokered by Wanfang Huizhi went unnoticed. Typically, if new authors are brought on, the corresponding author is expected to explain the change to the editor handling the paper. That didn't happen with the cancer paper, Joanna Kargul, the journal's managing editor, wrote in an e-mail to Science: "The authorship change slipped the radar of the reviewers and the handling editor."

    Outside China, ignorance of the methods used by agencies may prevent editors from spotting brokered papers. Schmoll notes that many editors struggle to evaluate the flood of papers from China: "We don't know the universities, we don't know the clinics, we don't know the research institutions." He adds: We have to either reject everything or evaluate [papers] as normal."

    Winds of change?

    At a publishing conference sponsored by the China Association for Science and Technology in Hangzhou last September and attended by editors from across China, Thomson Reuters' Stipp was the star of the show. As he clicked through PowerPoint slides explaining how journals are selected for the Web of Science, the broad citation database that encompasses SCI, audience members crowded the screen, snapping photos. A slide showing a huge leap in the number of Chinese journals listed brought hearty applause.

    Globally, the past few years have seen a growing shift away from science's overreliance on impact factors. In May, 155 scientists from 78 scientific organizations signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, a document drafted at the December 2012 meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (Science, 17 May, p. 787). The declaration advocates abandoning the use of journal impact factors to assess individual researchers. Chinese science leaders are steering in that direction (see Editorial, p. 1019). Thomson Reuters is working with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the science ministry's Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, and the Ministry of Education to introduce other evaluation measures for authors, such as total paper citations and number of patents awarded.

    One way to more explicitly combat paper-selling is to beef up authorship requirements. Following recurring revelations of pharmaceutical company ghostwriting at international medical journals over the past decade, several leading journals adopted more stringent standards, requiring that each author detail his or her involvement in the research upon submission. Some journals ask for one of the authors to serve as a "guarantor" of a paper's integrity and authorship from inception to publication. And editors say an increasing number of journals based in China warn authors that they are not affiliated with any paper-selling companies.

    Basing academic evaluation on peer review rather than on impact factors would also curtail fraud, argues Jianwu Tang, an ecologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who conducts research part of the year in China. "In a specific field, our colleagues know pretty much what we are doing," he notes. Others say that scientists caught in publication scams should face stricter punishments. For now, agencies and their clients are operating with impunity. Under China's current setup, says one editor, "what you gain [by buying papers] is more than you lose if you are found to commit academic fraud."

    As for the paper whose abstract the Wanfang Huizhi agent sent our reporter, the authors offered a range of explanations for the late changes in the author list. Asked about the decision to add a second first author, corresponding author Wang Xuedong of the Fifth People's Hospital of Wuxi and the Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing Medical University in Wuxi responded in an e-mail: "The entire submission was prepared by the first author, so I'm not very clear about the situation you mentioned." He explained that the first author had suggested adding as a co-first author a former classmate who had helped with the work. As to how the Wanfang Huizhi agent could have described authorship on the paper as for sale, he wrote: "We do not know through what channels the agency obtained the abstract to our paper."

    The original first author, Wang Qingping of Shaoxing Hospital of China Medical University in Shaoxing, denied that the authorship change had been his idea. Reached by telephone, he said, "The co–first author's name was added after discussion among the other authors. It was not my decision alone." In response to an e-mailed copy of the abstract obtained from Wanfang Huizhi, he wrote that he was shocked at the suggestion that 90,000 yuan ($14,800) had changed hands: "You don't mean [Japanese] yen?"

    Wang Yu, the new first author whose name appears in the slot that the agent claimed was for sale, remains a mystery. The Southwest Hospital of the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, listed on the paper as her affiliation, did not provide her telephone number. There's no trace of her online, apart from a few doctor review sites. The paper in the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology appears to be Wang Yu's first publication in an SCI journal. An unintended consequence was her debut in Science as well.

    Correction: This article states that Core Editing had advertised authorship for sale on 12 papers listed on its blog. The corresponding author of one of these papers, later published by the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, has since provided documentation to Science and to the editor of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences indicating that none of the authors paid to have their names added to the paper.

    • * With reporting by Li Jiao and Ma Qionghui.

  6. An Aura of Legitimacy

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    China's paper-selling agencies mimic legitimate services that help scientists struggling with English.

    China's SCI paper-selling agencies mimic legitimate services that help scientists struggling with English. In the 1990s, as science took off in Japan, editing outfits emerged to help polish English writing. Today, scientific language editing is a profitable sector, with established companies like American Journal Experts, Edanz, Editage, and Enago serving the global market. Besides editing, such companies offer additional services at various stages of the publication process, from suggesting appropriate journals to helping craft a cover letter. Some also edit for content and provide translation services.

    For the most part, journals recognize that they benefit by receiving more polished manuscripts. Some publishers now recommend specific editing companies, and the companies offer a discount to those journals' contributors in return.

    The paper-selling agencies flourish in the aura of these reputable businesses. A Baidu search for "SCI paper editing" brings up Editage and Enago—beneath a banner ad for MicroSCI, a company that goes a step further by gathering data and writing papers for scientists, according to a representative. For some scientists, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Many paper-selling agencies contacted by Science appear professional and well-staffed. Several have registered with China's Industrial and Commercial Bureau. To assure clients that all of their information will be kept confidential, the agencies prepare contracts emblazoned with government-issued seals.

    But any similarities to mainstream editing companies end there. MicroSCI sells its services on Taobao.com, the Chinese answer to eBay, and it is one of several agencies that guarantee a client's paper will be published, according to a sales agent. Guaranteeing publication is an alarm bell, says Benjamin Shaw, chief operating officer for Edanz in Beijing: "It makes me uncomfortable that some companies offer this. We always take care to educate authors that we can only guarantee language quality and that journal editors make the final publication decision." (MicroSCI did not respond to repeated interview requests.) The fees charged by SCI paper-selling companies raise eyebrows as well. Edanz charges $325 on average for language editing. Compare that with the $26,200 an agent with the outfit Ketong Editing and Translation says it charges for authorship on a paper targeted at a high-impact Western journal.

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