This week I worked on a large set of papers from a research group at the Tianjin Life Science Research Center at Tianjin Medical University. The group, headed by Dr. Hua Tang and funded by many National Natural Science Foundation of China grants, has published a total of 113 PubMed-indexed papers.
However, a significant number of these — 45 as of today — have PubPeer posts in which concerns are raised about their figures.
Browsing further back into the journal’s archive I found an interesting supplemental issue from 2016 that consists of 20 papers on psoriasis – all written by the same group of prolific authors.
The papers are not without problems. Lack of IRB approval, lack of patient consent to have their photos published, unclear patient recruitment and trial locations, inclusion of children in experimental drug testing, and to top it off, incorrect statements about conflict of interest. All papers heavily promote the same product line of herbal ointments and gels – and the founder of the company is one of the authors!
After an anonymous tip about some papers by the Şen Research Group with possible duplicated graphs, I started digging around a bit more. And I found a couple more papers with duplications. And more. Quite a lot more. As of now, the SRG has 84 papers flagged on PubPeer. [Excel spreadsheet; PDF version]
A short post highlighting a small set of papers (currently five) that all share some interesting features. As before, these might all have been produced by the same paper-writing entity, a so-called “paper mill”.
Similar to the Tadpole paper set, where all Western blot panels showed the same background noise, most wound healing assay photos in this mini-mill share the same microscope irregularities. And all of them describe a group of 48 patients.
While working on the larger “Tadpole” and “StockPhoto” paper set, plenty of other papers with similar title and layout structure were found that appeared to belong to different sets.
In this post, I will present to you the “Effect” paper set, uncovered by super-spotter Hoya Camphorifolia (a pseudonym).
I called this set the “Effect” set because about half of the papers’ titles start with “Effect of” or “Effects of”.
As with other paper sets suspected of being produced by a paper mill, this group of papers are all authored by different research groups at different hospitals, studying different animal models and therapeutics. Yet, they all share at least one image with each other.
“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.