Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Holes in ASS as journal pulls two papers

with 6 comments

asscoverThe journal Applied Surface Science (okay, so maybe it’s not called ASS at the home office) is retracting a pair of articles in its December issue.

The first, “Structure and mechanical properties of Ni–P electrodeposited coatings,” appeared in 2009 and was written by a group of researchers in Beijing. It has been cited nine times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Its problem: Plagiarism. According to the retraction notice

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief. This paper plagiarizes part of a paper that had already appeared in Surface & Coatings Technology 202 (2008) 5909–5913,

One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Re-use of any data should be appropriately cited. As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

The second, “Graphene sheets synthesized by ionic-liquidassisted electrolysis for application in water purification,” is somewhat more interesting. That paper was published in January 2013 by authors from Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan. But as the notice explains, that might have been a bit too soon:

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors. In their opinion the described research is not yet completed and needs further investigation. The authors apologize for this inconvenience.

Now, we’re all for correcting the record, but this strikes us as rather odd. If the paper wasn’t completed and the subject needs further investigation, then, well, don’t submit a manuscript for publication. Did the researchers identify problems after publication that they couldn’t solve? If so, why not say that instead?

  • Elisabeth Bik November 26, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    It’s funny that the statement in the Retraction Notice (“One of the conditions …”) by itself is a verbatim copy of the text in many other retraction notices. Sentences from this statement between quotes give over 30,000 hits in Google. Could it count as the most plagiarized text in scientific publications?

    • JATdS November 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      “This article has been retracted at the request of the authors.” Imagine you are a scientist who gets busted, quite literally, doing something “unethical” like plagiarizng some text. The last thing on your mind is gong to think rationaly about accountability and if the publisher or editor may also share in the blame, too. I decided to look at the 2-holed ASS web-site, and it says clearly here (, along with “CrossCheck. Powered by iThenticate”. OK, either iThenticate is a really @&%# software or Elsevier is doing a LOUSY job at detecting plagiarism. But a declaration that fully assigns responsibility to the authors, and fails to disclose editorial sloppiness is borderline unethical to me. When will more stand up to publishers like this and demand that retraction notices also admit to poor detection software, less-than-adequate editors and screening processes, and then also signed by the Elsevier executives and the editor-in-chief. That is what would be defined as fairness, honesty and transparency. Until this happens, these retraction notices all start to sound exactly the same with, as Elizabeth Bik correctly points out, the publishers now starting to be highly self-plagiaristic with their lazily cloned messages like “One of the conditions”. Incidentally, I decided to Google the expression “This article has been retracted at the request of the authors.” and was suprised to see that Yahoo yields 12,200,200 hits while Google yeilds 2,640,000. I haven’t had the time yet to look through those hits, but I bet they will reveal some interesting patterns… Incidentally, the most irritating thing abut almost all Elsevier journal submission pages is this nonsense marketing advertising of their “ethics”: “New – Part II of our Editors’ Update Ethics Special is now live!” No wonder Elsevier is most likely COPE’s biggest client and revenue creator. With shaky, contradictory and marketing-advertised “ethics” like this, it’s no wonder that new “ethics” associations or organizations are cropping up like PIE. They can see through the mist that is meant to cloud and distract scientists.

      • JATdS November 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm

        Two things I forgot to mention.
        PS 1: The first is that it has an IF of 2.099 ( which could meant a very juicy financial bonus to the Chinese researchers, at least to the corresponding author. I hope some Chinese bloggers follow up on this and try to find out if these scientists now need to reimburse their funding agencies and if the Chinese Ministry of Education is taking note of the gradual build-up of retractions of Chinese scientists’ work.
        PS 2: I noticed on the same page that this journal was actually not published by the parent company, Elsevier, but by an Imprint called NORTH-HOLLAND. If any blogger can provide some thoughtful insight about this imprint and about the implications of such imprints on large publishers like Elsevier, especially the “ethical” and editorial policies, this will definitely increase the flow of ideas about this case.

      • Tim D. Smith (@biotimylated) November 29, 2013 at 11:10 pm

        I don’t understand your interest in making parties who are not authors responsible for the authors’ conduct.

        • JATdS December 1, 2013 at 3:27 pm

          I am not in any way stating that the authors are innocent. Quite the contrary, if they were guilty of plagiarism, then let them suffer the consequences. However, I am claiming that the editors and publishers ALSO have a share in that responsibility because they, and their famously “powerful” iThenticate software, failed to do the job of detecting the very thing that the authors were accused of committing, i.e., plagiarism. If iThenticate is advertised as anti-plagiarism or plagiarism-detection software, and it does not detect plagiarism, then what is it? Does this mean that Elsevier paid for the use of a faulty product? Why is this failure to detect plagiarism not openly admitted by Elsevier, or the editors (or by iThenticate) in the retraction notice? Why is the word “plagiarism” euphemistically avoided in the retraction note? Why is “part of a paper” not quantified and why is the exact text that was identical (or similar) not indicated in the retraction notice? Why does the retraction notice only state “This article has been retracted at the request of the authors?” Why does the retraction notice not accurately state, instead of “The authors apologize for this inconvenience.”, “Elsevier, the editors and the authors apologize for this inconvenience.”? Because, simply stated, this relates to pseudo-corporate ethics and responsibilities. Retraction notices that look glossy, that feign responsibility and “ethics” towards the community, but then wash their hands Scott-free of their own corporate publishing failure.

          In summary, the failure in this publication was a shared failure because responsibilities in the publishing process are shared (albeit at different ratios, but nonetheless, shared). Is it clear now how parties that are not directly involved in the authors misconduct are related to the decision to retract a paper (and not, as you naively and erroneously try to portray, related to the authors’ misconduct)?

          • Tim D. Smith (@biotimylated) December 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm

            I suppose your argument is that publishing plagiarized works is akin to stealing books from a library: individuals have a duty not to steal, but the library also has a duty to protect the property of the community.

            But that duty depends on the magnitude of the problem. If a library loses a few volumes a year, its loss prevention program is probably working pretty well. If half the collection disappears, well, then it’s time to talk. Professional norms and the threat of retraction seem to be sufficient to make plagiarism rare in the context of the volume of published work, so I don’t really think that journals have an obligation to the community to detect plagiarism. If they’d like to try, I think that’s nice, but solutions that would stamp out plagiarism altogether would be expensive, unwieldy, and probably unnecessary.

            I guess how upset you are about the publisher’s role hinges on how pervasive you consider plagiarism to be and whether you feel publishers are doing enough to protect the community from it in the context of its frequency.

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