Does Chinese academic fraud result in unreliable patent data?

In Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad of December 11 Oscar Garschagen wrote[1] about massive fraud in Chinese academia.  NRC cites Fang Shimin, a freelance writer and self-appointed watchdog of research misconduct who was recently brutally attacked, initiated by Professor Xiao Chuanguo, one of China’s most well known urologists. The magnitude of fraud reported is consistent with a survey administered by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, showing that one third of 6,000 scientists surveyed admitted to “plagiarism, falsification, or fabrication.” The fraud is widely acknowledged and is even called an “epidemic” by Chinese government media.

This justifies the question how reliable are in fact the ever growing number of patent applications originating from Chinese inventors. China is believed to become the world’s most proliferate patent application filers by 2012, which is the result of China’s massive annual 25 billion euro investments in research & development. China now ranks nr. 3, after Japan and the USA, but it is expected that China will take over the role as the country with the largest number of patent applications by next year or 2012.  Isn’t it intriguing: how come international science magazines like The Lancet and Nature are flooded with “fake” academic research while industrial research leading to invention disclosures that lead to patent applications are all based on sound, honest and original R&D and real “inventions”? The inherent tendency to falsify is believed to be part of Chinese culture, mostly driven by the need for researchers and academics to perform and measured by the number of academic publications as well as the number of patents applications filed. Don’t tell countries do not falsify. Europe has Greece that falsified statistical data to show economic progress. So why would we accept Chinese patent filing data by the face of it, assuming fraud is only prevalent in academia, but industry would be clean? According to Eve Zhou and Bob Stembridge of Thomson Reuters patent applications in telecommunication increased over the last few years with 4.000 percent[2]. Both authors write that the various initiatives lead to the increase of Chinese patenting, investments in R&D, subsidizing Chinese patent applications, introduced tax breaks and monetary incentives to increase indigenous innovation and continued investing in the nation’s academic institutions, which – the authors write – are the driving force behind Chinese patenting. Well, if academia is the driving force behind patenting, what is the effect of massive fraud in that same academia on patenting output? Why would one trust academic publications based on fraud to believe that the “invention” described in the application as a result of that “research”, has indeed been made or works?

One problem: academic plagiarism can be detected by using specialized software. Patent Offices are supposed to have extensive search capabilities to check whether an invention in a patent application is indeed “novel”, meaning that the invention described in the application should not be published elsewhere, prior to filing the application? How can we trust this is properly done by the Chinese patent searchers? I assume Western, Japanese and Korean patent offices – asked to grant equivalent rights based on Chinese prior applications – have no means to check the authenticity of the claimed invention described in Chinese, while the translation maybe flawed, or contents overlooked, or simply ignored. Theoretically this should not be possible, but can we trust this? If we cannot, then we should ignore patent filing numbers as this will not result in trustworthy data on R&D output or even innovation in China. We would welcome academic research (non-Chinese, please) to verify the relationship between academic fraud and cheating patent numbers. We would be equally interested to publish views on this issue by our 40,000 monthly readers of the IPEG blog.

[1] “Fraude – made in China”, NRC Handelsblad , December 11, 2010, by Oscar Garschagen

[2]Patented in China, the Present and Future State of Innovation in China”, Eve Y. Zhou, Ph.D., and Bob Stembridge, Thomson Reuters, 2008.