Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Springer purge of fake reviews takes down 10+ more neuroscience papers

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Back in April, Springer retracted a record number 107 papers from Tumor Biology after uncovering evidence they were subject to fake peer reviews. But it appears that the Tumor Biology sweep was only part of the story.

During the Tumor Biology investigation, Springer found evidence that the “peer review process was compromised” in a dozen papers on brain cancer published in another journal. The 12 Molecular Neurobiology retractions have trickled in over the past year or so, published before and after the Tumor Biology sweep.

A spokesperson at Springer confirmed that the 12 retracted papers in Molecular Neurobiology were related to the Tumor Biology retractions for fake peer review:

The articles came to our attention during the thorough investigation of Tumor Biology articles.

The Springer spokesperson added:

Springer holds itself to the highest standards when it comes to identifying and solving research integrity and peer review issues and will continue to proactively investigate these issues.

We reported on one of these Molecular Neurobiology retractions back in May 2016. However, the notice for the 2014 paper didn’t mention problems with peer review — only that the authors “admitted they used material in the paper that did not originate from their lab.”

Since then, we have received word from frequent tipster Rolf Degen of several other retractions in Molecular Neurobiology, which have mentioned evidence of faked reviews. The Springer spokesperson confirmed that 12 recently retracted papers — including the one we’d already reported on — were tied to the larger investigation. This brings the total number of papers retracted over fake reviews to more than 500.

These dozen retracted papers in Molecular Neurobiology have many authors in common. All of the authors are based at universities and hospitals in China, such as Guangzhou Medical University and Affiliated Hospital of Shandong Academy of Medical Sciences, and some are also listed as authors on the retracted Tumor Biology papers. We’ve reached out to 10 of the corresponding authors for whom we could find contact information, but have not heard back.

Here’s one of the notices for a 2015 paper retracted over suspicion of compromised peer review and other issues:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher. The article shows evidence of irregularities in authorship during the submission process. There is strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised and the authors have plagiarized parts from the following article:

Shunzeng Lv, Ekaterina Turlova, Shigang Zhao, Huihui Kang, Mingzhi Han, Hong-Shuo Sun, Prognostics and clinicopathological significance of survivin expression in bladder cancer patients: a meta-analysis. Tumor Biol. (2014) 35: 1565. doi:10.1007/s13277-013-1216-y; Received: 23 July 2013

In addition, the article shows similarities with the following article which was submitted within a close timeframe:

Xiangshan Yang, Shunzeng Lv, Yuting Liu, Daotang Li, Ranran Shi, Zhenyu Tang, Jianzhen Fan, Zhongfa Xu, The Clinical Utility of Matrix Metalloproteinase 9 in Evaluating Pathological Grade and Prognosis of Glioma Patients: A Meta-Analysis. Mol Neurobiol (2015) 52: 38. doi:10.1007/s12035-014-8850-2; Received: 20 July 2014

The article “The impact of survivin on prognosis and clinicopathology of glioma patients: a systematic meta-analysis” was received on 26 June 2014.

As such the validity of the content of this article cannot be verified.

The 2015 paper, “The Impact of Survivin on Prognosis and Clinicopathology of Glioma Patients: A Systematic Meta-Analysis,” was retracted online in January 2017, and has been cited five times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Here’s the list of the 11 other retractions, including the one we covered last year. All notices mention suspicions of problems with peer review, and some also suggest issues with authorship and/or plagiarism:

In February, after we first learned of some of these retractions (and before the Tumor Biology sweep), a Springer spokesperson told us:

The authors submitted the papers within a narrow timeframe. Since these were submitted papers, and not published papers, a standard plagiarism detection software did not identify them. Only after publication were the similarities spotted.

When Springer contacted the authors, some apologized, while others “gave information about third parties helping them out,” the spokesperson said. She added:

Springer Nature is currently working on some improvement processes. With respect to authorship, we have started the implementation of a new functionality which will automatically flag changes in the author list between paper revisions. We are also working on a project to verify the identity of individuals invited to peer reviewer a paper. Credentials from peer reviewers will be checked through an automated process, for example, by confirming an institutional e-mail address. Concerning manuscripts, Springer Nature is rolling out a manuscript screening service within a new improved workflow.

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  • oliver June 17, 2017 at 3:51 am

    they have not checked the credentials of reviewers before? That speaks volumes!

  • herr doktor bimler June 17, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Lots of meta-analyses there. Wasn’t that a recurring feature with the written-to-order third-party paper-mills?

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