The Iranian Plant Paper Mill

Previously I wrote about the Tadpole Paper Mill and the Stockphoto Paper Mill papers. Paper Mills are companies that sell fake or plagiarized scientific papers to authors who need them for their career. Certain countries have strict requirements or monetary incentives for medical doctors, graduate students, or other researchers to publish papers. In such countries, other researchers or business folks have found creative ways of making money by selling fake papers to researchers. Such paper mills are similar to essay mills where ghostwriters offer their services to undergraduate students.

Paper mill papers sometimes can be recognized because they are written based on templates or by recycling the same photos. A particular set of papers might contain the same remarkable typo, western blots with the same background, similar title structures, the same erroneous gene sequence, unrealistic flow cytometry plots, or recycled electron microscopy photos.

Other paper mills operate by working together with journal editors responsible for ‘special issues’ who will review and accept low-quality submissions where authors have been added for payment.

Countless hours have been put into finding such linked sets of papers by volunteers such as Smut Clyde, Tiger, Jennifer Byrne, Jana Christopher, and Anna Abalkina. Here, we will look at a slightly different paper mill.

A new paper mill involving plants sampled in Iran

A tweet by Norbert Holstein, @dr_norb, led to a set of papers describing plants collected in Iran.

The “Iranian Plant Paper Mill” [Google Sheets57 70 papers as per September 2022] contains plant sampling locations that are shared between papers. Although the coordinates are the same across papers, the names of the locations (cities, provinces, regions) as well as the researchers or plant species vary. If one does a Google Scholar search on ‘altitude 165 159 1133 1139 2383 Iran’, there are 40 results, many of which might be from the same paper mill. The locations given in the table usually do not match those given on the map that is included in many of the papers, although both are showing Iran.

In addition, the locations often including impossible latitudes and longitudes, such as 38 ̊52’93” latitude and 47 ̊25’92” longitude. In these examples, the last number is seconds, so it cannot be higher than 59.

Screenshot of plant sampling locations from several papers in this set, with similar or impossible latitudes/longitudes marked with red or blue boxes.

Science ‘detectives’ Hoya camphorifolia, Stericta loxophaea, and Scythris inertella (pseudonyms) found many more similarities between these papers, such as shared TCS networks or phylogenetic trees. This is quite unexpected, given that these papers had different sets of authors analyzing different plant species.

PubPeer user Scythris inertella noted two graphs that appear to be shared between two papers. Source: https://pubpeer.com/publications/FA57EC0F9980E02748AAA3D994C51E
PubPeer user Scythris inertella noted three phylogenetic trees that appear to be identical. Source: https://pubpeer.com/publications/28884F486210C2D760445CFB584DF2

Several of these papers contain agarose gels with duplicated or altered lanes, which are sometimes re-used in other papers.

PubPeer user Hoya camphorifolia noticed that a gel from DOI: 10.1508/cytologia.87.23 representing Stellaria plants looked remarkably similar to a gel in another paper showing Lonicera plants. Source: https://pubpeer.com/publications/9EE6252FA4858B1BEE3DEB3AAB1DA5

Other papers in this set contain tables with the same genetic distances values found in other papers in this set, as illustrated in the screenshot below. What are the chances that different groups of researchers working on different plants using different sets of primers would all find the same genetic diversity values?

Hoya camphorifolia pointing out remarkable similarities between table values in two papers analyzing different plant species. Source: https://pubpeer.com/publications/88C276AB5FD7DF565AD1C12C3931B9

Screenshot of data tables from four different papers, sharing rows of the same values.

The first and corresponding authors are primarily from China, from different institutions, with co-authors from Iran. The corresponding email addresses do not always match the corresponding author’s name.

Paper mill AND citation ring

Many of these papers seem to have in common citing the same papers by S.M. Esfandani-Bozchaloyi and M. Khayatnezhad, perhaps as part of a citation ring.

Hoya noting the magisterial work of Esfandani-Bozchaloyi et al, who receive 13 citations in DOI: 10.2298/GENSR2102837M. Source: https://pubpeer.com/publications/5F1B8F7B15E55225C5BA91239742BA

The topics of these citations do not always belong in the papers citing them, suggesting that the paper mill might have been set up not only to sell papers, but also to increase the citation index of these authors.

Following papers that cite older papers by Esfandani-Bozchaloyi or Majid Khayatnezhad might lead to several more members of this set. I will update the numbers as I am finding more of these.

Citation Statistics and Citation Rings

Citations lend credibility to a scientific paper. And sometimes even result in a cash bonus. But while most researchers just hope their paper will be cited by others, some authors have found more ‘creative’ ways of getting their papers noticed. A recent comment on PubPeer offers a glimpse behind the scenes.

Continue reading “Citation Statistics and Citation Rings”

No misconduct found in the VSELs papers

In November 2020 I wrote about a set of 28 papers published by Mariusz Ratajczak, a professor at the University of Louisville who works on VSELs, very small embryonic-like stem cells.

Most of these papers included reused images, presented as new experiments without proper citation, while some others appeared to show overlapping photos or duplicated elements within the same photo. You can read my 2020 blog post here.

I shared my concerns about these papers with the university in February 2019.

Today -March 23, 2022 – the University of Louisville sent their final decision to me, and I am sharing this here with their permission.

The University of Louisville found there was no research misconduct. The institution followed its established, thorough, and robust process and made no findings of research misconduct against Dr. Ratajczak associated with any of the allegations, including all the allegations that continue to persist publicly on the internet. 

[Link to full letter]

New Mendel University Rector found guilty of misconduct

In October 2020 and 2021 I reported a total of 21 papers published by Professor Vojtěch Adam that contained image problems. Vojtěch Adam is a professor in chemistry, and head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, at Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic. He is a top Czech researcher in cancer and nanotechnology.

Today, a day before his appointment as the new Rector (Dean) of Mendel University, a committee released a report of their findings from an investigation into twelve of these papers. Their conclusions came as a big surprise.

Continue reading “New Mendel University Rector found guilty of misconduct”

Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series describing papers from the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée-Infection (IHUMI or IHU) and Aix-Marseille Université (AMU) — institutions in Marseille, France — with potential problems.

In Part 1, I listed papers with image concerns. In Part 2, I focused on a set of papers describing many different research projects on specimens collected from homeless people — but all run under the same IRB approval number.

In this post, we’ll take a look at IHU/AMU papers describing samples obtained from people in African countries. Many of them lack wording on ethical approval by the local authorities, and all lack authors from these countries. This type of research might fall under the definition of neo-colonial science.

A paper on a bacterium isolated from a stool sample from a Pygmy woman named after the senior author. Amazingly fast peer review too. Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2052297516301536
Continue reading “Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 3”

Blast in the Past: Image concerns in paper about comet that might have destroyed Tall el-Hammam

Tall el-Hammam was a Bronze-Age city in current Jordan that is a site of archaeological interest. It is believed by some to be the biblical city of Sodom. According to the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah were cities full of sinners, which were destroyed by “sulfur and fire” sent by God.

A paper published last week in Scientific Reports now claims that Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by a “cosmic airburst”, perhaps by the impact of a meteorite or comet. The article provides evidence of melted pottery and plaster, shocked quartz, and diamond-like carbon, all suggesting the city was exposed to a sudden high-temperature event.

The paper got a lot of media attention. However, several images presented in the paper appear to contain repetitive elements, suggestive of cloning.

Continue reading “Blast in the Past: Image concerns in paper about comet that might have destroyed Tall el-Hammam”

Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series describing papers from the IHUMI/AMU institutions in Marseille, France, with potential problems. In Part 1, I listed papers with image concerns. In this follow-up I’ll focus on a set of papers that might have problems with human subjects research not having received proper ethical approval. The articles span a decade of research on homeless people in Marseille, and involve different studies and specimens — but all were run under just one IRB approval number.

Photo credit:
Jon Tyson @jontyson
on Unsplash
Continue reading “Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 2”

Cassava Sciences: Of Posters and Spaghetti Plots

In a previous blog post, I took a look at Western blots in papers from the lab of Dr. Hoau-Yan Wang at City University of New York (CUNY), mostly related to Cassava Sciences (Nasdaq: $SAVA), its predecessor Pain Therapeutics INC, and its flagship Alzheimer’s Disease drug candidate Simufilam.

While those papers were mainly about the preclinical Simufilam data, here I will review a conference poster reporting on Phase 2 data obtained by Cassava Sciences.

Continue reading “Cassava Sciences: Of Posters and Spaghetti Plots”

Cassava Sciences: Of stocks and blots

A group of anonymous persons filed a Statement of Concern with the FDA regarding the integrity of research papers about Simufilam, an Alzheimer’s Disease treatment drug candidate developed by Cassava Sciences (Nasdaq: $SAVA). The petition raises concerns about Western blots and methodology. I took a look at the problematic photos included in the report, and agree with most of those concerns. I also found some additional problems.

Continue reading “Cassava Sciences: Of stocks and blots”

Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 1

Last March, I shared my concerns about a paper from the IHU-Méditerranée Infection (IHUMI)/ Aix-Marseille University (AMU) claiming that Hydroxychloroquine in combination with Azithromycin could reduce coronavirus viral loads faster than no treatment.

Other papers by this group of researchers led by Professor Didier Raoult and/or his right-hand man Professor Eric Chabrière, also appear to contain problems, ranging from potentially duplicated images to ethical concerns.

In this blog post I have gathered the papers by the Raoult and Chabrière group that have image concerns. This post is not an accusation of misconduct, but a compilation of the potential problems found in 22 different papers by this group. I welcome the authors removing any concerns by providing the original figures.

Continue reading “Concerns about Marseille’s IHUMI/AMU papers – Part 1”
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