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.
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.
“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.
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):