Protein journal retracts mystery paper that plagiarized phantom article

Protein & Peptide Letters, a Bentham title, has retracted a paper for plagiarism, but it’s the unhelpful — bordering on insulting — notice that caught our eye.

The abstract for the notice, the rest of which  sits behind a $63.10 (plus tax) pay wall on Ingenta Connect, reads:

As per Bentham Science’s policy, the following article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and its Authors published in `Protein & Peptide Letters“ due to their use of text obtained from another paper published in the Biochemical Journal.

Oh, my. Where to begin…

For starters, it would be nice to know which article, in fact, the journal is retracting. A good bit of hunting led us to this one: “Zebrafish caspase-3: molecular cloning, characterization, crystallization and phylogenetic analysis,” published in 2004 by a group from the IILM Academy of Higher Learning in India listed as Chakraborty, Chiranjib; S. Nandi, Shyam; Sinha, Surajit; K. Gera, V.

The Biochemical Journal is not a Bentham pub, belonging instead to Portland Press. We could find no citations in the BJ for the members of the research team, so we’re assuming that the article from which they picked up the text did not come from them. Again, however, since that paper is not identified, we’re simply assuming.

Finally, maybe we’re reading too much into something inscrutable, but the notice seems to have a whiff of petulance, what with its “As per Bentham Science’s policy …” It’s true that the editor-in-chief is mentioned, but the statement almost appears to be saying, “If not for Bentham’s ridiculous policy about not authors not plagiarizing, we’d still have this paper on our CVs.” (A paper, we should note, that has only been cited 10 times in eight years, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.) The utter lack of transparency in the notice does nothing to reverse this impression.

We reached Ben Dunn, who edits PPL, with hopes of learning why the notice is so meager. They were dashed. On the other hand, our assumptions proved correct, which is something. The authors had indeed plagiarized “word for word at least a paragraph or more,” he said, a fact brought to his attention by the folks at Biochemical Journal and acknowledged by the corresponding author.

But why would the abstract fail to inform readers about the titles of the two articles — or, at the very least, the one being retracted?

Dunn, the distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Florida, wondered why we and his audience would care:

What is the advantage to your readers [of knowing all that]?

In fairness, some people might not feel the same way we do about the earth-shattering importance of this blog. Remember “it’s none of your damn business?” So we tried to explain that perhaps scientists might appreciate being told, specifically, what articles in their field are no longer reliable. To which Dunn replied:

The name Chakraborty should be enough for you to do a search for that name and [the journal]. … The fact that we printed the retraction and that we identified the individuals and that the corresponding author agreed to a statement that he apologized — in my mind the fact that he did all that and we did what we were obligated to do by our standards, I think that’s enough.

The public needs to know that there are cases of scientific misconduct — this clearly was a case of that – and they need to know that some journals are paying attention to this. But how much is added to the public by dragging all this up?

In other words: LMGTFY.

20 thoughts on “Protein journal retracts mystery paper that plagiarized phantom article”

  1. “What is the advantage to your readers [of knowing all that]?”… I agree. Indeed, what is the advantage to read Protein & Peptide Letters if papers were previously published in other media?

  2. The paper plagiarized is likely:

    Yabu T, Kishi S, Okazaki T, Yamashita M. Characterization of zebrafish caspase-3 and induction of apoptosis through ceramide generation in fish fathead minnow tailbud cells and zebrafish embryo. Biochemical Journal. 2001;360:39–47.

  3. What a wonderful little vignette – it conjures up a whole conga line of the unbelievably arrogant academics I have come across in the past.

    High salaries and high job security: a recipe for creating egotistical monsters.

  4. This is absolutely ridiculous! More and more I come to think that academia absorbs only the completely arrogant, socially inept individuals. I believe in economy they say the strong currency gets kicked out by the weak one!

    1. I believe that you have an issue with sampling bias, given the focus of this blog. My own (also anecdotal) experience is that the arrogant jerks are vastly outnumbered by the basically decent and honest folks. Academics, like any profession, are made up of human beings, who will tend to go off the rails when not exposed to proper checks and balances. What I appreciate about Ivan’s work is how he has made this blog is one of those checks and balances.

      So by all means, do be outraged at the asshole stupidity of the Bentham editor. But don’t take him as representative of the profession.

      1. Well, as a member or the academic bubble, I have to agree and disagree. My comment is not only a result of what I read in this blog (which obviously focus solely on these issues and thus can lead to a frequency bias), but also of my experience. This, in itself, is also subject to several types of bias so I suggest we do some sort of systematic research on this topic 🙂 I don’t want to believe that he’s representative of the profession but in the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I personally believe or what the whole looks like if what is highlighted and what the general public sees is only this type of examples. Even if we’re aware that we make heuristic judgements, the reality is these are the stories that make the cut, that get highlighted. In any case, who in academia has not experienced the arrogance of journals and their editors? Like I said, we should look into it with scientific eyes but my hypothesis is that not an isolated attitude.

    2. That’s right: bad money drives out good money…because individuals hoard the currency perceived to be valuable and preferentially spend the currency that appears to be overvalued or other wise worth less.
      I think even more apropos would be the Peter Principle: employees get promoted to the level of their incompetence. That is, someone keeps getting promoted until he/she reaches a job that she/he isn’t smart enough to do; then, instead of being fired or demoted, they are left there until they retire. I think this law was formulated in a book by a former businessman…it belongs on the shelf next to “How to Lie With Statistics.”

      PS: why would they not identify at least the title of the article that is being withdrawn? Perhaps there might be some excuse for not naming the article that was stolen from (what it is, I don’t know) but what excuse is there for not saying which article is retracted??? On the other hand, there is the statement: “the following article has been retracted…” Is there some unambiguous way of interpreting that statement? That is, is there a discernible sequence, as in page numbers?

      These editors act as if they have no obligation to enlighten anyone. A $63 paywall reduces my interest in the journal even further. Perhaps commoners like us aren’t worthy to read their exalted ejaculations.

      1. Thanks for clarifying that. Maybe researchers should start to realize that it is not we that need the journals but the journals that need us and our work! Whatever is done in the journals, we can well do without them. Peer-review? That is easily set up! Editing? Same.

    3. The a**holes and the clueless speak loud. That is the problem. Get rid of scientists who are not in science for the sake of knowledge (general careerists, hacks…) and the problem is solved.

  5. “How much is added to the public by actually admitting what the titles of the papers are, so that they don’t have to beat their head against the wall trying to figure out if it’s a proper paper to cite…”

    Actually, on that note, is said retraction actually included at the top of the originally-published article? Because that’d be nice.

    1. RW fills a critical niche in the conduct of research, publishing, etc. by disseminating an awareness of its darkside, misconduct. That said, I fear that there are many loyal followers of this outstanding blog – perhaps three in this posting alone – who use this information to generalize, stereotype, etc. all of those in academia. As in any profession, there are arrogant idiots in science (as mentioned by “reviewer 3” above), but I fear there is an increasing population of bloggers here who use every post by Adam and Marcus to further their belief that all in academia are the absolute worst of all humanity. In the nearly three decades I’ve been in academia, from a trainee to a mentor of dozens of UGs, grad students and postdocs, the vast majority of my colleagues, in my dept., in other departments, at study section, etc. are good, honest, decent people. People who work harder than in any other profession I am aware (despite their “job security”), people who positively impact the lives of literally countless students, and people who do not have particularly high salaries. Not to mention, these are also the people who continually enhance humankind through their efforts to understand the world. These contributions do come with a price because humans are an essential part of the process. It’s an imperfect world, but to take the example of a few bad apples to demonize an entire profession of hard working and good people, is both sad and unfair. And truly detracts from the otherwise intelligent discussions that characterize this website.

      1. Well, there are many people who got a PhD and now they cannot get an academic job. If you were one such person, wouldn’t you resent anyone who is doing well in academia? Wouldn’t you feel better if you thought that the only reason why you did not get in is because the system is all corrupt and so you would not want anything to do with it to begin with? It’s human nature.

  6. So, Jon, now it’s the Aesop fable of the fox and the grapes… the fox kept jumping up to bite at the grapes, but they were too high for him to reach. So, he slunk off, saying to himself, “Those grapes were probably sour anyway.”
    Why am I reducing all the aphorisms to cliches and catch-phrases? Will somebody press my reset button?

  7. In reply to Dataskeptic , September 7, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    “to take the example of a few bad apples to demonize an entire profession of hard working and good people, is both sad and unfair”

    We all know that in any field/profession there will be few bad apples which do not represent the majority – honest and hard-working people (please note that I do not agree with you that academics ”work harder than in any other profession”).
    The question is: How the majority (i.e. the good guys) treat the few bad apples?

    Once upon a time I did believe (in Santa Claus and) in Academic integrity.
    I did believe that all academics are people of impeccable moral, who have the highest standards of ethics. I did believe that, if something (related to academics) is not-quite-right, then it most definitely only looks like that, it is just a coincidence and for sure it’s not truth. I did believe that if the authors/editors/publishers/institutions are informed about something which is not-quite-right (to put it mildly), they’ll fix it and might even thank me for pointing it out to them, and everything will be OK.

    However, the more experience from real life I have accumulated, the more the reality deviated from my perceptions, while finally I realised that academics are people like everybody else. Academics are no different than the taxi drivers, plumbers, or waiters, except that they are may be more intelligent than them. In academia, just like in any other profession, there are good, not-so-good and bad individuals, but because they are highly intelligent, the damage incurred from those who are bad is much greater that the damages which might incur from the taxi drivers, plumbers, or waiters. While we all condemn taxi drivers, plumbers or waiters, when we are deceived by them, for some reason (unknown to me) when we are deceived by academics it’s OK. And if someone wants to make a point that some academics are deceiving us in order to get (steal) more of our hard-earned dollars, then the reaction from all the “good” academics is “Shut up, we don’t want to open a can of worms”.

    The whole point here is:
    HOW the good academics do treat cases of misconduct from the very few (we assume) bad academics?

    Regrettably, the answer is: Cover up, Silence, Ignorance.
    That’s why the credibility and trust in academia erodes.

    For your information in the “old world” – Europe – there is a proverb (i.e. centuries of wisdom concentrated in one sentence) which can be translated in English as:
    Whoever tries to clean a shitty ass gets smelly hands. (i.e. cover up erodes your credibility)

    So, please, get rid of the bad apples in your lines and you’ll be respected again!
    Retraction Watch with Transparency Index offers a fair solution.
    Embrace it for your own benefit!

  8. A significant point that’s missing from the discussion here is that Protein and Peptide Letters (PPL) like many of the Bentham stable is pretty much a vanity publishing exercise. You pay a large fee to have your paper published and then the publishers pull in further cash by charging for access to your paper. The publishers put almost no effort into providing an editorial service to the author, instead badgering him/her to do all of this themselves. If by any chance the author wishes to see their final published paper…well the publishers will graciously allow the author to purchase a copy.

    So it’s not surprising in the least that PPL charges for access to a retraction notice [*], and in response to Rita Bee’s heartfelt enquiries above, Professor Dunn is certainly not “representative of his profession”.

    I’ve banged on about this before, but it’s worth highlighting the fact that the electronic age has seen an explosion of new electronic journals, and it’s difficult to see how these make much of a contribution to the advancement of scientific enquiry; a very large number of very low impact journals largely serve a flabby expansion of work of little interest. It’s also not surprising that many of the examples on RetractionWatch (especially concerning plagiarism) come from some of these journals.

    [*] To give PPL it’s due, the retraction notice is now free to download from the PPL site.

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