“Are you looking to buy your own custom-made scientific paper? You have come to the right place. We are the Stock Photo Paper Mill! You can pick and choose all kinds of great items from our pool of stock photos to create your own paper. We have photos featuring colony formation, wound healing, and transwell assays. We have survival plots and flow cytometry panels too! Just pick what you like from our catalog, and we will turn your selection into your own, unique paper. “
A hypothetical commercial for a paper mill.
Stock photos are photos that you can pick and buy from a catalog. Some sites even offer free stock photos. Stock photos are often used by new sites and bloggers to illustrate their stories. Some photos can even be funny, especially if they depict models pretending to be professionals. On MicrobiomeDigest.com I have several blog posts about laboratory stock photo fails that might make you smile.
Here I will discuss the Stock Photo Papers, a set of 121 papers, almost exclusively published in the same scientific journal. The papers all have different authors from different institutions, and describe different cancer types and tissue samples.
However, although each of these papers looks unique at first glance, all papers in this set contain images from the same library of about 100 photos and plots. Like images in a stock photo library, each of these photos was used multiple times in different papers. My findings, covered by Eva Xiao in the Wall Street Journal, suggest that they were all created by the same paper mill.
Today I found four papers that appear to share colony formation and tumor photos with each other. Because they do not share authors or institutions, and because they all investigated a different type of cancer, it is hard to imagine how these four ended up with the same photos. The authors might have all used the same outsourcing laboratory or paper mill.
A follower on Twitter asked me to look at two identical papers. I agreed that they looked very similar, did some searches, and found six more. All eight papers presented the same survival curves, table values, and similar line graphs. But they were published in different journals by different authors, at different institutes, on different patients, and different cancers.
In this blog post, I present to you the Mysterious Case of the Octopaper.
Most posts on this website are about duplications within or between figures in the same paper, or about duplications found between papers by the same group of authors. But now, our small group of image forensics detectives has come across a large set of papers – over 400 as of today – from different authors and affiliations that all appear to have been generated by the same source. Based on the resemblance of the Western blot bands to tadpoles (the larval stage of an amphibian, such as a frog or a toad), we will call this the Tadpole Paper Mill.
Update: for those who cannot access the Google Sheets link above, here is a PDF version embedded in WordPress which I hope will work for all (generated March 3, 2020):
In the past week, I looked at papers from the group of Catherine Verfaillie, who previously worked at the University of Minnesota (USA) and later became the director of the Stem Cell Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven; Belgium). The outcome of this renewed look at a “cold case” was first described by Leonid Schneider in a December 4 post on his For Better Science blog.
Because I recently posted concerns about a set of over 50 papers from a Chinese immunologist, several journalists and scientists have asked me why I targeted a specific professor from a specific country. My answer is that I search for problematic papers, regardless of what country they are from.
As of today, I have posted concerns on PubPeer about 1300 papers. About half of these, 775, were posted in the last 6 months (1 June 2019 – 23 November 2019). I started scanning the biomedical literature for image duplications, plagiarism, and other concerns in 2013. Because I quit my job earlier this year, I now have much more time to spend on finding and reporting papers, which is why more than half of these posts were done in the last 6 months. In total, I have found over 2,000 papers, but I have not yet reported all of these to PubPeer.
My 775 PubPeer posts from the last 6 months discussed papers in 32 different countries on six continents (as determined by the affiliation of the first author). Of these, almost 200 are from the US, and 106 are from China. Here is a map:
So no, I am not specifically targeting anyone or any country. I am, however, targeting problematic papers, no matter where they come from.
This blog post is not an accusation of misconduct, and reflects my personal opinion.
This paper has it all. The authors are from Stanford University’s School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. It was published in 2002 in Nature Medicine, and has been cited over 900 times, as per Google Scholar. It even received a prestigious F1000 Recommendation. And it was supported by six NIH grants.
Five years ago, in 2014, I reported three papers from the same lab with possible image duplications to the journals in which they had been published. One of these papers has since then been corrected – although I argued in a previous post about this paper that a retraction might have been a better decision. The other two papers are still untouched, unfortunately.
Since the journals and authors had had 5 years to respond, I posted my concerns about these three papers on PubPeer, so that at least researchers with the PubPeer extension can see that they have been “flagged”. I also found a couple more papers from this lab – headed by Dr. Xuetao Cao – that appeared to have problems and I posted these as well.
And then someone pointed out that the senior author on these papers was one of the top immunologists in China.