South Korean plant compound researcher faked email addresses so he could review his own studies
Scientists frustrated by the so-called “third reviewer” — the one always asking for additional experiments before recommending acceptance — might be forgiven for having fantasies of being able to review their own papers.
But one Korean scientist, Hyung-In Moon, managed to do just that, through what must have seemed like clever subterfuge at the time. And he got away with it for a while — until he didn’t, as witnessed by this retraction notice for “Larvicidal activity of 4-hydroxycoumarin derivatives against Aedes aegypti,” published in Pharmaceutical Biology, an Informa Healthcare title:
The peer-review process for the above article was found to have been compromised and inappropriately influenced by the corresponding author, Professor HI Moon. As a result the findings and conclusions of these articles cannot be relied upon.
The corresponding author and the publisher wish to retract these papers to preserve the integrity of material published in the journal. The publisher acknowledges that the integrity of the peer review process should have been subject to more rigorous verification to ensure the reviews provided were genuine and impartial. The publisher apologizes for any inconvenience rendered to the readers of the journal and wishes to assure the reader that measures have been taken to ensure that the peer review process is comprehensively checked to avoid a similar error occurring.
There are three more retractions in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, with the same notice:
- “Hepatoprotective effects on alcoholic liver disease of fermented silkworms with Bacillus subtilis and Aspergillus kawachii”
- “Anticancer activity of sesquiterpene lactone from plant food (Carpesium rosulatum) in human cancer cell lines”
- “Anti-complement activity of essential oils from red and black rice bran”
We wanted to know just how Moon had “compromised and inappropriately influenced” the peer-review process. What we learned, from Informa Healthcare managing editor Kimber Jest, was quite something:
He suggested preferred reviewers during the submission which were him or colleagues under bogus identities and accounts. In some cases the names of real people were provided (so if Googling them, you would see that they did exist) but he created email accounts for them which he or associates had access to and which were then used to provide peer review comments. In other cases he just made up names and email addresses. The review comments submitted by these reviewers were almost always favourable but still provided suggestions for paper improvement.
Moon had apparently read the same playbook as Guang-Zhi He, an author at Guiyang College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China who made up email addresses for possible reviewers of a paper that was eventually retracted. Like He, it turns out Moon tried to be too clever. Real reviewers might have always been”almost always favourable but still provided suggestions for paper improvement.” But they wouldn’t have been so fast. Jest continued:
This came to our attention when the Editor of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry, Claudiu Supuran noticed that almost all of the peer review comments were coming back in less than 24 hours. He contacted Prof. Moon who admitted to pretending to be some of the peer reviewers that he had ‘recommended’ or to asking colleagues to provide the reviews. We then provided a list of all the papers that Prof. Moon authored and published in our journals and asked him which ones were affected and if he would retract any of them based on his manipulation of the peer review process.
There will be more retractions from Informa, from Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry and Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology. The case has been frustrating to deal with, Jest tells us:
We have tried numerous times to contact his institution but have received no response. We attempted to contact all co-authors to let them know about the situation- very few replied, and most of those who did said they were not aware of Prof. Moon’s practices. Prof. Moon claimed throughout to have acted alone and that his co-authors were not involved in this activity. He was the submitting and corresponding author on all of the papers.
Informa, Jest said, will take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again:
We have audited the peer review process for all our journals and updated our Best Practice peer review guidelines for our Editors and Associate Editors. This includes reinforcing the idea that we must have at least 1 review performed by someone that was not listed as a preferred reviewer, checking thoroughly the expertise and institution of suggested reviewers, and being suspicious of minimalistic and positive reviews coming back extremely quickly. We have recommended that editors try and use institutional email addresses as far as possible to contact reviewers and generally we raised awareness among our editors of this novel type of misconduct. We have also placed this case before COPE and have been following their recommendations which included issuing the retraction notices for the papers that Prof. Moon admitted to influencing the peer review of and agreed to retract, and investigating further the other papers he has authored with us to see if there is cause to retract these papers as well- one suggestion was to send them out for peer review again and this is an ongoing part of the case.
Informa has also added this warning on some of their journals’ article submission pages:
Please note: it is inappropriate to list as preferred reviewers researchers from the same institute as any of the authors, collaborators and co-authors from the past five years, as well as anyone whose relationship with one of the authors may present a conflict of interest. The journal will not tolerate this practice and reserves the right to reject submissions on this basis.
For his part, Moon acknowledged suggesting his friends and colleagues as reviewers, telling Retraction Watch that the results “can be mistaken for fake reviews.” But he said it wasn’t only his mistake: The editors, Moon said, invited those reviews without confirming the identity of the reviewers.
Moon denied encouraging his friends to review the papers, but admitted that that “the lack of [a] genuine and impartial review process” meant that readers can’t rely on the findings and conclusions of the articles. As a result, he proposed a retraction and agreed to the notice.
Moon also — um, helpfully? — had some suggestions on how to make sure this didn’t happen again:
There is nothing wrong with soliciting reviewers from authors, as long as there are some checks. Of course, authors will ask for their friends, but Editors are supposed to check they are not from the same institution or coauthors on previous papers. I know so many journals ask for *potential* reviewers, which they then add to a database of reviewers for the field the submission was made in. They then send the paper for review to other people on that database.
Examining the feasibility of potential reviewers is an important part of being an editor, Moon said.
Then…authors and editors will be able to avoid the problems [that occur] from the selection of reviewers.
Moon — now in the department of Medicinal Biotechnology at the College of Nature Resources and Life Science of Dong-A University, in Busan, Korea — has experience retracting papers. We found seven from several years ago:
- “Erythrodiol-3-acetate, pentacyclic triterpenoid from Styrax japonica, expressions of matrix metalloproteinase-1,2 in cultured human skin fibroblasts,” in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology
This article has been retracted at the request of the first author with the agreement of the editor. Please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).
Reason: The first author, Hyung-In Moon, has written to the journal editor indicating his responsibility for having committed major mistakes whilst conducting the experiments, and apologises to the co-authors and the readers for this retraction.
Readers may wish to know that three other papers in which Hyung-In Moon is a co-author, have also been retracted for the same reason:
The effect of tiarellic acid on the expressions of matrix metalloproteinase-1 and type 1 procollagen in ultraviolet irradiated cultured human skin fibroblasts. J. Ethnopharmacol., 98 (2005) 185–189.
The effect of flavonol glycoside on the expressions of matrix metalloproteinase-1 in ultraviolet irradiated cultured human skin fibroblasts. J. Ethnopharmacol., 101 (2005) 176–179.
The effect of sativan from Viola verecunda A. GRAY on the expressions of matrix metalloproteinase-1 cause by ultraviolet irradiated cultured primary human skin fibroblasts. J. Ethnopharmacol., 104 (2006), 12–17.
- “The effect of 2′,4′,7-trihydroxyisoflavone on ultraviolet-induced matrix metalloproteinases-1 expression in human skin fibroblasts,” from FEBS Letters:
This article has been retracted at the request of the authors and/or the Editor-in-Chief.
Reason: This article has been retracted at the request of the editors and authors due to unreliable data resulting from instrument error.
- “Effect of Meso-dihydroguaiaretic acid from Machilus thunbergii Sieb et Zucc on MMP-1 expression in heat shock-induced cultured primary human fibroblasts,” in Phytotherapy Research:
This paper by Hyungin Moon and Jae-Chul Jung (DOI: 10.1002/ptr.1941)has been retracted by agreement between the authors and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. The retraction was requested by Hyungin Moon due to errors being made in the performance of the experimental work.
- “Matrix metalloproteinase-1 expression inhibitory compound from the whole plants of Viola ibukiana Makino”, also in Phytotherapy Research, with the same retraction notice.
We asked Moon for more information on these retractions, but he hasn’t responded yet. According to Thomson Scientific, none of his papers has been cited more than 20 times.
Then there’s the erratum for “Synthesis of sulfonamides and evaluation of their histone deacetylase (HDAC) activity,” in Molecules:
At the request of the authors of this paper , we wish to announce the following corrections:
The list of authors and their institutional affiliations is revised to:
Seikwan Oh 1, Hyung–In Moon 2, Il–Hong Son 2, Jae–Chul Jung 1,* and Mitchell A. Avery 3
The correction then lists affiliations, and continues:
The Acknowledgements section is revised to:
This work has been supported by the KOSEF Brain Neurobiology Grant (2006), the Ewha Global Challenge grant (BK21) and Cooperative Agreement Number 1-U01 C1000211 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (M.A.A.).
This Errata note will be linked henceforth to the original paper. The corresponding author and other coauthors wish to apologize to Dr Avery, the University of Mississippi and the C.D.C. for the omission of their contributions to this research, and to the readership of Molecules for any inconvenience caused.
1. Oh, S.; Moon, H.-I.; Son, I.-H.; Jung, J.-C. Synthesis of sulfonamides and evaluation of their histone deacetylase (HDAC) activity. Molecules 2007, 12, 1125-1135.
We asked Mitchell Avery, of Ole Miss, whose name was the one added to the paper, what happened. Corresponding author J.C. Jung, Avery said, was one of his postdocs for a number of years. At some point, Moon visited the lab, then he and Jung returned to their home country of Korea and published some of the work they’d performed in Avery’s lab — without telling Avery.
I was forced to involve the University here to deal with Jung to submit errata which then included myself as author, and the agency that funded the work here (the CDC). Altogether a most unsavory situation. While Hyung-In Moon was here, he was more a colleague of Jung’s than my postdoc, and I had no hand in training him. The whole thing was very odd.
Update: Please see a new post about 20 more retractions by Moon.