You plagiarized? No problem, says journal, we’ll retract so you can rewrite, and we’ll republish

mol cell biochemHere’s something we haven’t seen before: A group of researchers plagiarize, are called on it, and are then allowed to resubmit a new version that’s published, while their offending paper is retracted.

A reader  flagged the plagiarism in the original paper, “Protein domains, catalytic activity, and subcellular distribution of mouse NTE-related esterase,” by Ping’an Chang and colleagues, which led the research team to revise and resubmit the manuscript. After the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry — a Springer title — published the plagiarism-scrubbed paper, the original paper required retraction.

The retraction refers to a dispute between labs, but not plagiarism:

This article has been withdrawn due to a disagreement between authors and the original laboratory where the research was conducted.

The paper has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s what Alexander Brown, a Springer spokesperson, told Retraction Watch by email:

In this case, Dr. Sanjeeva Wijeyesakere of the University of Michigan raised serious concerns about plagiarism, mainly for the writing of the manuscript and some figures. Upon investigation, it was determined that some of the writing as well as two cartoon figures were similar in both papers. Dr. Chang submitted a revised version of the manuscript with modified cartoon figures, which were then looked at by Dr. Wijeyesakere who was satisfied with the alterations made. This revised paper was then found suitable for publication and all parties were notified. Springer Management then retracted the first paper (Mol Cell Biochem, DOI 10.1007/s11010-009-0185-3) upon the recommendation of the Editor-in-Chief, and printed the revised version (Mol Cell Biochem, DOI 10.1007/s11010-0009-0382-0).

While there was an allegation of plagiarism of several sentences and some cartoon figures, it did not nullify the results or conclusions. All authors were involved in the retraction of this paper, and Dr. Wijeyesakere who made the allegation was fully satisfied.

The Editor-in-Chief believed the major problem was that some portions of the text were similar in sentence structure due to a language problem, and two figures required modification. These were corrected by the authors and the dispute between the two laboratories was resolved by retracting the original version and publishing the revised version.

Brown didn’t identify the original lab whose work was plagiarized. We’ll keep you updated if new information comes in.

Chang never responded to our emails. We heard back from one of his c0-authors, who did not mention plagiarism. Yi-Jun Wu, senior author and investigator with the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, emailed:

I do not know exactly why the paper was withdrawn. I asked Dr. Ping-an Chang, the corresponding author of the paper and he told me that the retracted (paper) is the old version of the paper (that) appeared at first in the website rather than the formal version of the article printed later.

Like Wu, we’re still puzzled.

18 thoughts on “You plagiarized? No problem, says journal, we’ll retract so you can rewrite, and we’ll republish”

  1. Wonder what should happen when libraries decide not to put up with continuous retractions of already paid for publications? Should they ask for reimbursement? Can the injured recover damages resulting from following the recommendations of fraudulent research? Can universities recover salaries paid for fraudsters? Can students who were taught by fraudsters recover course tuition? Many questions are yet to be answered

    1. aceil you are absolutely correct in my short time of doing this I have argued that these people should be prosecuted, the institutions sued for failure in oversight and the grant monies returned. We would not tolerate this in any other business, if someone built a house for you and it collapsed because of faulty, sloppy or the use inferior products, they would either be prosecuted or the company get sued for allowing it to occur, why should education be any different.

      1. Re: lawsuits. In the long term you will probably deter the honest from publishing at all, unless they can pay big insurance fees, and the wrongdoers don’t care because they make it so that there is no money left to get from them. A big help that would be.
        A healthy critical attitude towards anything published might be useful too, whether in the news paper or in the science journal. In science nothing is ever proven anyway, you merely get some hinting evidence, and teaching that would be worth a great deal too.
        (Not that I defend fraud, but lawsuits are not the answer.)

        1. dave my point on lawsuits was the recovery of monies obtained by means of fraud. lawsuits and proscutions would be against the person committing the fraud. i have seen many cases (thanks to RW) in which the people who published fraudulent paper(s) were still employed by the same insitution months and years later.
          we sue/prosecute bank tellers etc. for thefts involving much smaller amounts of money then people who write papers, with grant money.
          it would not take a university lawyer much time to put together a case and give it to the DA for proscution, or sue the paper writter for return of monies, or even fire the person. if universities don’t do this some lawyer could sue the university for negilent retention. As tution debt/cost rises someone is going to figure that out. For universities not to follow up in these cases is a crime ( not in the real sense). these people are taking grant monies from people who would really use it.
          i am not defending the law profession and the article on the cost of litigation is well written about.
          Universities are sweeping a problem under the rug, for fear of bad PR, the tenure system or what ever the reason, but eventually the issues will be exposed and the issues will be 10 times worse.
          but returning to my question I am open to any other suggestion to solving the problem.

      2. “We would not tolerate this in any other business”. We tolerate it all the time. Think about Wall Street bailouts.

        1. Dave and API, universities have lawyers on staff, who should be more active in this area, granting agencies should be more proactive in the recovery monies, why shouldn’t universities, professors be required to return the grant money. Any honest researcher who didn’t get a grant that was given to one of these fraudsters should be mad as heck.
          Lawsuits don’t stop doctors, car makers etc from producing (it makes them do a better job), if you take money from the people who commit fraud or institutions due to improper supervision or if you put them in jail for fraud it might help deter others. As it stands now not much happens to these people.
          I completely agree that the people who ran wall street institution, banks etc. should be “making small rocks out of big rocks” I can not defend such inactions (however there are numerous lawsuits in progress, and lawsuits that have been settled over these frauds), but to do what the publishing/education system allows to go on, is unconscionable. I am open to any suggestions.

          1. 1) Can anybody calibrate? I’ve seen a bunch of grants where the university got ~30% of the total. Is that typical? Low? High?

            2) I’ve always though that using a lot of grant money (say more than 50%) for totally unrelated work was grant fraud & possible felony.
            Does anyone know of any cases where some Inspector General went after such and recovered funds and/or sought prosecution?

          2. Reply to John Mashey:
            With Federal grants (NIH, DOD, etc), the university gets a cut. It’s called “indirect costs.” It’s meant to account for the costs that the university incurs by supporting research but that are not covered by the “direct costs” (which are salary and supplies, mostly).

            Indirect costs include things like the cost of building research building and utilities; a percentage of maintenance and housekeeping expenses related to research space; a percentage of library costs related to research; a share of administrative expenses related to the administration of grants, and so on. The costs are carefully accounted by the university and audited by the federal government every two to four years to set the rate for the next 2-4 years. My university is around 50%, Harvard is 77%.

            This means that for a typical NIH R01 grant, which has direct costs of $250,000 per year (to be used for salaries, supplies and other direct research expenses) the university gets an additional $125,000 or more for their research-related expenses.

            Private grantors (foundations, non-federal, etc) may or may not allow indirect costs, or may cap them at lower rates.

          3. Further to John Mashey,
            There is an actual office within the NIH charged with making sure that grantees actually do the work they propose to do. I don’t know if they work on tips or random audits or what.

            But, the situation is trickier than that. Currently, only the top 10% of NIH grant applications get funded, sometimes less. And the way to be a top application is to show lots of “preliminary data” that shows your grant has a high probability of success. That means doing — in advance and on someone else’s money — some of the experiments you propose to do for the grant. Then, if you get the grant, you spend some of the money finishing those experiments and some of the money doing new experiments to get “preliminary data” for your next new idea and next new grant application. It’s unfortunate, but everyone knows that’s how it works. Thirty years ago they funded the top 25-35% of grant applications and you didn’t need to prove in advance that it would work. But as the money has gotten tighter, the process has changed. (NIH funding has declined 50% in inflation-adjusted dollars).

          4. Can scientists who are sick of what they have been witnessing start a campaign through which they collect evidence to show how impact factor, university ranking and citations record are affected following retractions of heavily cited papers?

  2. And since the number of university publications impacts its ranking: ho will that be adjusted after multiple retractions? There is only one word that can describe the whole issue of publications: ANARCHY

  3. Perhaps the “disagreement between authors and the original laboratory where the research was conducted” was indeed an “authorship dispute” between former collaborators — which the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and many institutions do not consider to fall under the definition of research misconduct (plagiarism) —

    see ORI website with policy statement:

    Many allegations of plagiarism involve disputes among former collaborators who participated jointly in the development or conduct of a research project, but who subsequently went their separate ways and made independent use of the jointly developed concepts, methods, descriptive language, or other product of the joint effort. The ownership of the intellectual property in many such situations is seldom clear, and the collaborative history among the scientists often supports a presumption of implied consent to use the products of the collaboration by any of the former collaborators. For this reason, ORI considers many such disputes to be authorship or credit disputes rather than plagiarism. Such disputes are referred to PHS agencies and extramural institutions for resolution.

    1. Indeed. So far, this sounds like an error, not serious plagiarism.
      But I cannot resist again mentioning a case where
      1) 2 Editors-in-Chier wrote 2 heavily-plagiarized articles for their own “peer-reviewed” journal, with lots of material from Wikipedia and elsewhere, and error-filled besides.

      2) Numerous complaints were made to the publisher (WIley), who let them quietly revise the (online papers), see PDF @ See No Evil,… sections 4.7, 4.8 and 5.2, 5.3, or <a href=""Story @ Deep Climate. Finally, 3 months later, the editors quietly vanished from the masthead, i.e., the editors were finally retracted, although I think the papers remain. Thankfully, just recently, two credible people have taken over their slots.

      1. Surely, the case of Wegman at GMU is a special one, giving the appearance that GMU is protecting its employee or protege because of his point of view, which is essentially anti-science, a specialty at GMU. Why Wiley went along with it is a mystery to me…
        It appears that the case under discussion is also a special one, not involving extensive plagiarism. The fact that the complainant was satisfied with the revisions makes it “all right.” At least to me. There are numerous other outcroppings far more prominent that we should perhaps concentrate on.
        Crying out for the blood of these miscreants may be satisfying but ultimately fruitless as harsh sanctions are unlikely to be enacted in the face of lobbying by the groups affected. The current state of affairs is ominously contradictory, as less than 10% of proposals are funded and the NIH faces more cuts due to sequestration. Meantime, the lobbying activities of interested parties have created a minefield of restrictions that will prevent any effective legislation or executive activities, hobbling the government at a time when its powers to resolve inequities are most needed.
        It is no wonder that some principled officials offer to drink hemlock at a time like this.

  4. This appears to be the source of the alleged copied material.
    “Modeling the tertiary structure of the patatin domain of neuropathy target esterase.”

    The new version has some cartoons of the structure of the protein NTE-related esterase, and it should not be surprising that the structure is similar to that of neuropathy target esterase or NTE. And how many ways are there to draw a protein structure cartoon anyway? Unfortunately the old version of the retracted MS is not available on line so I can’t determine how closely the retracted version might have copied or borrowed from Dr. Wijeyesakere’s version.

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