A paean to an advisor and his wife: Absurdly bad academic paper riles up Chinese public

Society & Culture

Pictured: Cheng Guodong, recently resigned editor-in-chief of the Journal of Glaciology and Geocryology

China’s Journal of Glaciology and Geocryology, a top Chinese scientific journal that’s been around for more than 40 years, has drawn a great deal of criticism for a 2013 paper that recently resurfaced online. Featuring a flattering depiction of the editor-in-chief’s “noble qualities” and his wife’s “elegance,” the article was seen as indicative of several serious flaws in Chinese scientific research and academic publishing, such as nepotism, a dysfunctional peer review system, and misuse of research funds.

Titled “Theory and practice of ecological economics integration framework,” the 35-page piece was penned by Xú Zhōngmín 徐中民, a researcher at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), a Lanzhou-based facility affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). In the abstract, the author argued that the framework of his studies relies on a combination of approaches, which include both natural and cultural factors. When it comes to the “metaphysical aspect” of his research, Xu said that he looked no further than his advisor Chéng Guódòng 程国栋 and his “harmonious and unified relationship” with his wife Zhāng Yòufēn 张幼芬.

Unification of the feeling
“Unification of the feeling of Mr. Cheng’s sublime with Mrs. Cheng’s beautiful”

In the paper, Cheng, a geocryology scientist at CAS who also served as the journal’s editor-in-chief, was praised as “the backbone of the country” for his contribution to the design of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which, according to Xu, was an engineering miracle given the harsh climate and geographic conditions on the Tibetan plateau. In addition to Cheng’s academic accomplishment, Xu also expressed admiration for his advisor’s “peaceful personality” and “noble qualities.”

“My advisor is an advocate for shooting colors in the sky. His spirit is magical yet perpetual, just like the space. He elevates us to the real stage of life,” Xu wrote.

Xu also devoted a large chunk of it to praising Xu’s wife. Citing a sexist Chinese idiom that reads, “Ignorance is a woman’s virtue” (女子无才便是德 nǚzǐ wú cái biàn shì dé), Chen applauded Zhang’s decision to take on the bulk of the family’s domestic responsibilities. In a section titled, “Cooking for my advisor is an obligation,” Xu argued that Zhang doing chores around the house showed that she has “positioned herself correctly” and “had respect for Cheng’s work.” At one point of the article, Xu even included a diagram explaining how Xu’s happy marriage positively impacted his studies.


There’s more. The Beijing News revealed (in Chinese) that the paper in question was the result of a “major research project” on the Heihe River Basin, which received 2 million yuan ($290,000) from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and took four years for Xu to complete.

While the piece was published seven years ago, it angered the Chinese internet when it began circulating again over the weekend and raised an array of questions about how the article passed the journals’ peer reviewers and how Xu earned government funding without proving actual knowledge or insight about ecological economics. “It’s eyebrow-raising that someone wrote this article and had it published. But what really irked me is how everyone in academia just pretended nothing abnormal happened afterward,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

State media also condemned the researcher. From a People’s Daily editorial: “Academic journals are no private gardens. Using public resources for personal gain and turning public platforms into a self-serving space for students is a violation of regulations. It not only harms public interest, but also disappoints rigorous academics, pollutes the academic environment, and disrupts the ecosystem.”


In response to the criticism, Cheng announced Monday morning that he had decided to step down as the journal’s editor-in-chief, claiming that although he wasn’t aware of the paper before its publication, he felt obliged to take some responsibility. A few hours later, CAREERI released a statement (in Chinese) saying that it had accepted Cheng’s resignation and would review Xu’s other published works.

But Xu himself has refused to apologize. When contacted by the Beijing News (in Chinese), Xu defended his study, arguing that the paper “has a deep meaning.” Xu also denied being a sycophant. “The flattering words came from a place of respect and admiration,” he explained. In another interview (in Chinese) with China News Daily, Xu accused his critics of failing to view and appreciate his findings through a positive lens. “I’m always a loner. I feel no need to speak up for myself,” he said.