Professional misconduct in academia

Last month, I learned that a previous VT professor, Dr. Yiheng Zhang, was arrested due to scamming National Science Foundation (NSF).<1> Dr. Zhang was accused of using already completed projects (in China) to apply funding from NSF. Moreover, once received the NSF award, Dr. Zhang only paid VT an overhead charge of 18% rather than 30%. This news was quite a shock to me back then since Dr. Zhang was the post-doc supervisor of my senior in our group (alumni). Knowing some people around you who get caught by FBI is not something to be proud of, especially Dr. Zhang being a Chinese scholar.

Previously, I know some examples of using already completed projects (in US) to apply funding in China. The cutting-edge research in US can be reorganized into a new proposal submitting to NSF of China. Considering this project is already completed, the adapted proposal could be awarded in most cases due to the well tailored experiment design, specific aims, and broader impact. But I should admit that this is the first case I know of doing the whole thing reversely. Either way, these behaviors are utter violation of professional conduct in academia, and if the accusation is true, this professor should be ashamed of his wrongdoings.

We discussed about the cheating issue in professional sports, and I should say similar unethical behaviors can be observed in academia. Last year, I read Dr. Edwards’ paper on perverse incentives in academia and benefit a lot from this paper. <2> The current academic incentives originally serve as straight forward parameters for performance evaluation. However, under the current hypercompetition environment induced by tight funding conditions and limited academia positions, these incentives, e.g. quantitative performance metrics, have been abusively adopted/interpreted, leading to intentional manipulation and unethical conduct within the community. I know it is quite difficult to come up with alternative metrics with self-adapting feature to eliminate current concerns. But we still need to put some effort in addressing overwhelming hypercompetition environment. I just hope in the future I will learn less news on professional misconduct with scholars’ increasing awareness and a more healthier academic environment.



  1. Virginia Tech professor accused of scamming National Science Foundation.
  2. Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition.

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