Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Sting operation forces predatory publisher to pull paper

with 4 comments

Medical Archives

Sometimes, the best way to expose a problem with the publishing process is to put it to a test — perhaps by performing a Sokal-style hoax, or submitting a paper with obvious flaws.

In 2014, that’s just what a researcher in Kosovo did. Suspicious that a journal wasn’t doing a thorough job of vetting submissions, she decided to send them an article of hers that had already appeared in another journal. Her thinking was that any journal with an honest and thorough peer review process would hesitate to publish the work. But this journal didn’t — at least at first. Though they retracted the paper this summer, it took a few twists and turns to get there.

The researcher wasn’t the only one wary of the journal — it’s on Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers. Appropriately, Beall recounts the story of her sting operation on his blog. Here’s how it all went down:

In February 2014, Hatixhe Latifi-Pupovci, a researcher at the University of Pristina in Kosovo, submitted a paper to Medical Archives about thyroid diseases. The paper was flawed — and she had a motivation to send it to Medical Archives. As she told Beall:

Since tens of my colleagues from the University of Prishtina were getting academic promotions based on publications in the three journals edited by Dr. Mašić, I decided to test the credibility of one on them (“Medical Archives”) by submitting a humble paper which was already published in Prishtina, Kosovo, and, in my opinion, would not qualify for publication in an international journal. I submitted the paper on 22 February 2014 and, on 14 April 2014 received a reminder to pay the publication fee of 250 EUR, which I never did.

Nonetheless, the journal published Latifi-Pupovci’s paper — in fact, a full four days before they sent her that reminder to pay the fee. The sting was a success. Latifi-Pupovci notified her colleagues. As she explained to Beall:

On 27 April I sent a message to a 3000 member Yahoo Group of  professors and students of the Faculty of Medicine in my home university, explaining the whole situation and making clear that I renounce the paper and I am not going to use it for my academic promotion.

But the story doesn’t end there. The journal soon caught on to the problems with the paper; though if they knew it was part of a hoax, they didn’t admit as much.

In July 2014, the editor of the journal, Izet Masic, published an editorial titled “A New Example of Unethical Behaviour in the Academic Journal ‘Medical Archives,” calling out Latifi-Pupovci’s actions and declaring that paper would be retracted:

First case of plagiarism this year was happed in February issue when author prof. Hatixhe Latifi-Popovci tried to publish her paper in our journal with title “Association Between Autoantibodies Against Thyroid Stimulating Hormone Receptor and Thyroid Diseases”. After several and anonymous suggestions from Prishtina that this article was already published in the journal “Praxis Medica” in Albanian language and identical in content we received, it was decided to retract paper from our side. Also, Dean of the Faculty of medicine in Prishtina and Rector of University of Prishtina were informed about author’s unethical behavior.

Then, nearly two years later, in June 2016, the journal issued an official retraction notice for Latifi-Pupovci’s paper, along with two others (one of which is also mentioned in the 2014 editorial). And Masic published another editorial alongside the formal 2016 retraction, “Peer Review – Essential for Article and Journal Scientific Assessment and Validity,” which notes that plagiarism “has become a kind of disease that every day takes the character of an epidemic.”

The 2016 notice for Latifi-Pupovci’s paper does not provide much information — no explanation of the issue with the paper, no indication that the author had herself renounced the publication. Here it is:

Concerning of un-ethical behaviors of some authors of the papers published in previous issues of the journal “Medical Archives” Editorial Board and me as Editor-in-Chief decided to retract several papers. We follow COPE Retraction Guidelines (http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines_0.pdf) and publish a separately citation for retracted article.

Here are the three papers that the notice retracts:

  • Urinary biomarkers of acute kidney injury in patients with liver cirrhosis,” was published in 2014 and has been cited once, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. Anass Ahmed Qasem is the first author and Heba Pasha is the last author; both are listed at Zagazig University in Egypt.
  • “Association Between Autoantibodies Against Thyroid Stimulating Hormone Receptor and Thyroid Diseases,” for which we could not find a link and does not appear to be indexed in Web of Science. Latifi-Pupovci appears to be the paper’s sole author.
  • The Effect of Nasal Packing Removal on Patients Anxiety” published in 2015, and co-authored by Caner Sahin and Hatice Imer Aras affiliated with the Sakarya Akyazi Government Hospital in Turkey, and has not yet been cited. (There also does not appear to be a retraction notice on the paper itself.)

The notice does an additional thing that’s slightly strange — it appears to swap the retracted articles with different ones on entirely separate subjects, noting the name of the retracted paper, and then that it has been “changed with” another article. (We’ve seen that happen before.)

Even more confusingly, when we contacted Masic for more information, he told us that he did not retract the paper, he rejected it:

Latifi’s paper wasn’t published, wasn’t converted to XML file and didn’t send to PMC, Pubmed, Scopus and other databases. It was only in category of “On-line First” on Scopemed, our official DBMS.

However, the editorial uses the word “retract,” not “reject,” as does the retraction notice.

It seems that the journal may have in fact done both. According to Beall, Masic sent Latifi-Pupovci a rejection letter in May 2014, just after the paper appeared online, and prior to the editorial.

We asked Masic for his perspective on the sting operation as it was outlined in Beall’s post. He did not comment directly on it, but told us:

No need to be so critical in giving opinions about me and my academic work, especially maliciously without arguments.

This case may be uniquely jumbled, but it’s not the first time a journal published a hoax paper online, and then claimed that it had rejected it. Last year, the International Archives of Medicine claimed a paper on a fake weight loss study submitted by journalist John Bohannon was rejected. They claimed that the paper had only been live for a few hours, in what sounded like a production error. (Actually, the paper was online for weeks, and email correspondence shows the journal had accepted the paper.)

For his part, in his 2016 editorial, Masic claims that Medical Archives does not just wave through any article that a researcher submits. According to the editorial, the journal accepted roughly 50% of the papers submitted in the first five months of 2016 (though some were still under review), noting that:

Acceptance rate of each journal, should be information that will stand in the first row of the description of the journal, because through it can be a lot to learn about the criteria and possibility of accepting the manuscript for review and publication in the journal. In the minds of the authors, acceptance rate, indicates the quality of the journal, to be all down the lower acceptance rate, the higher the impact factor, which is still in fact wrong.

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Comments
  • KK August 31, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Sting operation is being replicated now a days! not sure whether this is a good trend though!

  • PJTV August 31, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Hatixhe Latifi-Pupovci deserves praise that she tackled this issue despite the fact that she is early in her career.
    The editor, Izet Masic, deserves further scrutiny. His cv states that he has 250 publication as (first?) author and 750 as “co-author”. Scopus reports 130+ and 120- publications to his name as respectively first author and co-author. Some 200 of these were from two journals, where he is editor-in-chief. Many of these were editorials. So his scientific record is much smaller than what he makes other to believe and there is the question of the mix-up between his editorship and his authorship.

  • Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva August 31, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    Of possible interest:
    Al-Khatib, A., Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2016) Stings, hoaxes and irony breach the trust inherent in scientific publishing. Publishing Research Quarterly 32(3): 208-219.
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12109-016-9473-4
    DOI: 10.1007/s12109-016-9473-4

  • KDS September 12, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    It does make one wonder about the wisdom of publishing one’s own works (whether as author or co-author) in a journal for which one is also the editor-in-chief— I can see why such an editor-in-chief would do this (“this is my area of specialization, and I am so proficient at it that I am now editor-in-chief of a journal on it, to which I frequently submit my own work, because that is my area of specialization”) as well as how this could quickly become problematic (“I now have a million publications in the journal whose content I control, and I am certain that every one of them is absolutely perfect: I know this because I reviewed each of them as I wrote it so nobody knows better than I how worthy and accurate each of them is— can I have more money now?”).

    Do hoaxes undermine the credibility of otherwise reliable scientific journals? Absolutely. But without other means of ensuring checks and balances, the gatekeepers can lock the gates without even realizing what they are doing.

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