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.

The Stock Photo Paper Mill

A typical stock photo. License: CC0 Public Domain. Source: https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=53739&picture=people

“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.

TLDR: Links to the list of 121 papers: [English] Google SheetPDFExcel format

Update 7/7/2020: Links added to list of papers in Chinese – with big thanks to TigerBB8 for the translation and for adding the grants: [Chinese] PDF

Continue reading “The Stock Photo Paper Mill”

The Tadpole Paper Mill

Tadpoles. Modified image by MarjanNo from Pixabay.

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):

Continue reading “The Tadpole Paper Mill”
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