Wayward “contractor” prompts expression of concern for PLoS ONE paper on cancer cells

logoThe editors of PLoS ONE have issued an Expression of Concern (which seems likely to become a retraction) for a 2014 paper by a group of researchers in China who claim to have been led astray by a contractor hired to “edit the language” of the report.

The article, “Arsenic Sulfide Promotes Apoptosis in Retinoid Acid Resistant Human Acute Promyelocytic Leukemic NB4-R1 Cells through Downregulation of SET Protein,” came from a group in the Department of Hematology at the First Affiliated Hospital at Xi’an Jiaotong University, and was led by Yuwang Tian, a pathologist at the General Hospital of Beijing Military Area of PLA.

Or at least that’s what the manuscript eventually said. According to the expression of concern, however, that’s not what it said initially:

The authors of the article “Arsenic Sulfide Promotes Apoptosis in Retinoid Acid Resistant Human Acute Promyelocytic Leukemic NB4-R1 Cells through Downregulation of SET Protein” recently requested the retraction of this publication. During the evaluation of this request, the PLOS ONE editors have identified a number of concerns about the article:

  • The article reports the same work as the publication below in Tumor Biology, published three days after the PLOS ONE article:

Tetra-arsenic tetra-sulfide (As4S4) promotes apoptosis in retinoid acid -resistant human acute promyelocytic leukemic NB4-R1 cells through downregulation of SET protein

Liu Y, He P, Liu F, Zhou N, Cheng X, Shi L, Zhu H, Zhao J, Wang Y, Zhang M.

Tumour Biol. 2014 Apr;35(4):3421-30. doi: 10.1007/s13277-013-1452-1.

  • The PLOS ONE article includes an additional author as first author, Yuwang Tian, who has not been included in the author list of the publication in Tumor Biology. The first author was added to the author list of the PLOS ONE article after the manuscript had been editorially accepted and before its publication.

We have followed up with the authors in relation to these concerns and they have indicated that the manuscript was submitted to PLOS ONE without their knowledge by a contractor hired to edit the language and that the first author Yuwang Tian is not a member of their research team.

In the light of the concerns about the duplicate publication of the same work and the difference in the author list for the two articles, the PLOS ONE editors have contacted the Xi’an Jiaotong University to request an institutional investigation.

The PLOS ONE editors are issuing this Expression of Concern to alert readers of the concerns about this publication. We will take further steps in relation to this article as necessary according to the outcome of the institutional investigation.


  • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) June 27, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Probably, Yuwang Tian submitted the PLoS paper because he objected to getting no credit on the Tumour Biology paper (not even an acknowledgement).

    • Narad June 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      I am “a contractor hired to edit the language” of such papers (through a fairly well known intermediary), and the only explanation I can come up with for something like this is that the field is well populated with disaffected/washed-up Ph.D.’s. Some houses actually demand an advanced degree, which I suppose might inspire author confidence, but if EFL manuscript editing were an overlapping skill set, native speakers wouldn’t need manuscript editing, either.

      • Professor Karen Woolley PhD CMPP June 30, 2014 at 3:08 am

        In the same way predator open access journals have sullied the reputation of legitimate open access journals, predator writers (eg, ghostwriters, poorly trained writers, inexperienced writers) have sullied the reputation of professional medical writers. If editors, authors, peer-reviewers, readers, and patients want to know:
        1. If the writer on a manuscript has passed an international, psychometrically validated EXAM on ethical and effective publication practices, they can check if the writer is a Certified Medical Publication Professional (CMPP; CMPP Directory accessed freely here: http://www.ismpp.org/cmpp-directory).
        2. Whether publication professionals in industry and agency settings are aware of and following guidelines on ethical publication practices, they should read the results from the Global Publication Survey (accessed freely here: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/4/e004780.full).
        3. Why many English-as-first-language authors still need writing support, they should read one of the top 5 most downloaded articles in Current Medical Research and Opinion in 2012 and other articles published by the Global Alliance of Publication Professionals (list available here: http://gappteam.org/news/index.html#responsesindex.html
        Disclosures: Frustrated by amateur and unethical writers and authors who use them. Unpaid director on not-for-profit association (ISMPP) that provides education on ethical publication practices and underwrites costs for certification exam. Employee of company that provides ethical and effective publication services – we DON’T ghostwrite!!

  • CarolynS June 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    According to the Science magazine investigation published fairly recently, in the underground scientific publishing world in China, there are even first authorships for sale in already accepted manuscripts. Yuwang Tian apparently was not even on the PLoS paper until after it was accepted, so it hardly seems that Tian actually submitted the paper to PLoS at all.

    • JATdS June 27, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      There are two clear issues here. The first, which is hands down lack of publishing ethics, is “the duplicate publication of the same work”. That alone qualifies for retraction. Without any discussion. The second issue is I think we need more information about who this individual is, how he was identified and “contracted” by the authors. Also, the notice states “The first author was added to the author list”. Added by whom? Names don’t just randomly appear on papers. Who submitted the paper? Can we try to get a publically displayed version (or translation) of the contract with the language editor in order to see the fine print and clauses (for exmaple, was co-authorship guaranteed)? Information is needed about such “contractors” in China, how they operate, what they charge, and how they fit into the broader authorship picture of science publishing. Such services are apparently big business in China, and they start to lead into that dark, grey zone of guest or ghost authorship. As I say, some key details are missing from the story being told aboe, and the authors would do well to come forward and tell their side (since we are only seeing PLOS’ perspective above).

      • Narad June 27, 2014 at 7:37 pm

        Information is needed about such “contractors” in China, how they operate, what they charge, and how they fit into the broader authorship picture of science publishing. Such services are apparently big business in China, and they start to lead into that dark, grey zone of guest or ghost authorship.

        It would help if you clarified “such services.” With manuscript editing having largely disappeared as a regular service provided by journals publishers, there are a number of companies filling the gap. (Indeed, OUP is gearing up.) Is developmental editing available? Sure. Is a massive rewrite “ghost authorship”? No, not in the least; even a mention in the acknowledgments would be inappropriate where I come from: that’s the job.

        If there’s some sort of Chinese gray market in such services, it seems as though its only leverage would lie in being really inexpensive, and if you’re so far down the funding chain in China that that margin would make a difference, there’s a question whether you have any affiliation at all.

  • Dan Zabetakis June 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Good for PLoSOne for requesting an investigation. It will be interesting to see if they get a reply at all.

  • Scrutineer June 27, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    A quick google search reveals that PLoS One have announced a number of Expressions of Concern over the last few years. On this blog, probably most readers would consider that more is better. In that light, thank you PLoS One but feel free to try harder.

    It could very well be my googly incompetence but I could not find any other PLoS journal doing these expression of concern thingies.

    It may be that PLoS bigwigs consider that it is inevitable that their catch all journal* will have to throw out the odd bit of dross – whereas for the stars in the PLoS stable, the situation could simply not arise where an E of C would be needed?

    On the other hand there is this


    as well as the rather convoluted discussion here:


    *Personally I am very much in favour of the PLoS One ideals. I do hope they will continue to strive at getting better at following them: Practice makes perfect.

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