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.

3 thoughts on “The Iranian Plant Paper Mill”

  1. Dear dr. Bik,

    What if this “papermill” is actually a tiny low-quality corner of a larger operation?

    Let me mention that Majid Khayatnezhad had some common papers with a well-known PubPeer character Afshin Davarpanah.

    Or that the same Khayatnezhad is eagerly cited by a certain Kazakhstani guy called Alibek Issakhov (just check his output and co-authorships).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Correction: I was too eager to associate Issakhov directly to Khayatnezhad. In fact, they are associated through a spectacular batch of nano-trash published in “Applied Nanoscience” – see here for citations to Khayatnezhad:

      https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=%22khayatnezhad%22+source%3A%22applied+nanoscience%22&btnG=

      and here for Issakhov’s masterpieces in the same venue:

      https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=author%3A%22issakhov%22+source%3A%22applied+nanoscience%22&btnG=

      The name of MM Selim clearly stands out in both searches, but does not cover everything.

      Like

  2. I think you have already found the link between Iranian, Chinese authors, and the editors (S. M. E.-B.).
    The mill works this way:
    1. They write papers for those PhD candidates that are not able to write in English properly. They get the money and data, fill the gaps by graphs and some additional data, and usually cite their own publication(s) to enhance their own citation index.
    2. They send emails to different authors and offer them citation enhancement and authorship for money.

    Like

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