Journal withdraws diabetes paper written by apparently bogus authors

BBRCTalk about a Trojan Horse.

Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications has withdrawn a paper it published earlier this year on metabolic proteins linked to diabetes, not because the article was bogus but because the authors appear to have been. The work itself is accurate — indeed, it likely belongs to a Harvard scientist, Bruce Spiegelman, who’d presented his data on the subject several times recently and was in the process of preparing his results for publication. We’ve written about researchers trying to punk journals with faked articles, and about a researcher who apparently made up a co-author, but here’s something new!

Nature has the story. According to Nature, in July Spiegelman:

e-mailed Ernesto Carafoli, BBRC’s editor-in-chief, to air his concerns. “The authors on this paper have apparently never published a single academic paper before and they list a non-academic e-mail address,” he wrote. “Odder still, upon looking for them on Google, PubMed or on the website of the university they list, there is no mention of any of the authors as being at that university.”

Carafoli, along with Elsevier, launched an investigation. Elsevier temporarily withdrew the paper from the journal website on 8 August, and, after the University of Thessaly confirmed that none of the researchers listed on the paper had ever worked there, now intends to withdraw it permanently.

Here’s the withdrawal notice for the paper, “Identification of meteorin and metrnl as two novel pro-differentiative adipokines: Possible roles in controlling adipogenesis and insulin sensitivity,” which lists as its authors a team from the School of Health Sciences at the University of Thessaly:

BBRC has been targeted by a scheme to defraud our editors, reviewers and readers with submission of a manuscript with falsified author and institutional information and therefore wholly unverifiable scientific claims. The manuscript has been withdrawn. We consider such abuse of the editorial and peer review system with the submission of fictional content unethical and it wastes the valuable time of all those who contributed to the evaluation of this manuscript. We are currently exploring which local authorities would have jurisdiction, and will with such authorities explore the question of whether this also constitutes a criminal case of internet fraud and we anticipate turning over to them all of the information we have been able to attain from EES regarding the source of the fraudulent submission.

Nature says Spiegelman “is keen for there to be a criminal investigation,” although based on our experience, that seems quite unlikely. Elsevier, in comments to Nature, didn’t rule out the idea that this was criminal behavior.

We congratulate BBRC on its aggressive handling of this case. But we’re a little worried that sort of aggressiveness might be a one-off. The journal in September withdrew another article, “Down-regulation of long non-coding RNA TUG1 suppresses melanoma cell proliferation and induces apoptosis via up-regulating microRNA-9.” The reason?

This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause.

That retraction is why this post is also categorized as “unhelpful retraction notices.” We’ve explored whether an “article in press” can be given a mulligan before.

27 thoughts on “Journal withdraws diabetes paper written by apparently bogus authors”

  1. Although probably missing something obvious, I have to ask: What exactly would someone hope to gain by publishing another person’s work under a fictitious identity? Does their fictitious cv need padding? Or is this an example of someone anonymously testing The System, akin to people who apply for (and sometimes receive) credit cards in their dog’s name?

    1. The Nature article says this:

      “He [Spiegelman] believes that the paper was intended to hurt him and his lab. Scientific misconduct is usually done for academic gain, but because the authors on the paper seem to be phantoms, they can derive no benefit, he says. He argues that this seems to leave ‘maliciousness’ as the only explanation.”

      I can’t come up with a better explanation.


    2. By publishing Spiegelman’s data before him, you effectively prevent him from publishing the same dataset. He would have to produce additional data, which could take years, or submit a low-impact version of what he has as support for the first article, at the risk of being charged with plagiarism himself if the data added up too well. This could hurt him professionally, making it harder for him to achieve funding, new assignments, tenure, or other jobs in the field.
      It’s a nasty but potentially efficient way of eliminating competition in the field, or just getting petty revenge.

    3. So we have two possibilities: (1) Enemies publishing your own work as a preemptive strike; (2) Submitting your own work using fake names and affiliations and contact information, seeing it through the process, then screaming in outrage as a “victim” of evil-doers.

      I still don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s making my skin crawl. Has biomedical research, and those who practice it, really become this diseased?

  2. Hasn’t some of his work, particularly the Irisin story, been questioned fairly heavily as of late? Links between the two?

  3. I don’t know if the events are related. In 2010, Spiegelman had a spicy debate with some exercise physiology researches at JAP. The discussion (which included a Spiegelman response) was under a clear sense of struggle:

    Then, last year Spiegelman came with new exercise-hormone data reported at Nature:

    Promptly, some exercise physiology researchers questioned the data, which was followed by a rough Spiegelman reply:

    Irisin now is clear under investigation, with 50% of reports claiming a positive role in exercise, and half pointing doubts over the findings.

    1. There has been a critique of the Nature Irisin paper in Adipocyte. Unfortunately this paper is not on Pubmed.

      Adipocyte 2:4, 289–293; October/November/December 2013; © 2013 Landes Bioscience

      However I think this paper points to some clear issues with some of the reagents etc used in the Nature paper

      1. Agreed… in particular the use of an antibody raised against a completely different part of the precursor than the cleaved irisin should be reason enough for a retraction.

          1. I know. We complain about dodgy blots…but at least to my way of thinking this is a much more serious concern

      1. In reply to RB October 1, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        My observations.

        This is my take on the first one you mentioned.

        Nature. 2008 Aug 21;454(7207):961-7. doi: 10.1038/nature07182.
        PRDM16 controls a brown fat/skeletal muscle switch.
        Seale P, Bjork B, Yang W, Kajimura S, Chin S, Kuang S, Scimè A, Devarakonda S, Conroe HM, Erdjument-Bromage H, Tempst P, Rudnicki MA, Beier DR,Spiegelman BM.

        Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Department of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School, 1 Jimmy Fund Way, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.
        PMCID: PMC2583329

        Figure 1a. Bland backgrounds. Complete extinction of PRDM16.

        Figure 3g.

        UCP-1panel. I think that there is a vertical, straight change in background between the upper halves of lanes 1 and 2.
        CIDEA panel. Unsure of true background.
        Beta-Actin panel. Signal below bands stops short of bottom of panel. Unsure if lower,main (black) band in the right-most lane is joined by general background to the grey band above it, or to the bands to the left of it.

        Figure 4b. Background is very flat.

        Figure 4c. Upper panel. Unsure of true background. An odd speck does not make general background.
        I wonder if the band in lane 3 is not a very slightly longer exposure of the band in lane 4. thedistributionof signal is very similar.

        The darker areas the band in lane 4 you find that many line up with those in lane 3. The dark spot in the lower left of the main block of bands, about halway up the lanes, does match up if you try to line up the darkest areas in both bands. On the screen these dots look differently placed.

        Figure 4d. The background in lanes 4 and 5 is reminsicent of Edvard Munch’s “the scream”.

        The bands in lanes 3 and 6 look like they have been placed to avoid “the scream”. The constellation of the three bands in lanes 3 and 6 is quite boxy, but the boxes are not parallel and have quite similar distribtuions of signal.

        This is my take on the second one you mentioned.

        Nature. 2010 Jul 22;466(7305):451-6. doi: 10.1038/nature09291.
        Anti-diabetic drugs inhibit obesity-linked phosphorylation of PPARgamma by Cdk5.
        Choi JH, Banks AS, Estall JL, Kajimura S, Boström P, Laznik D, Ruas JL, Chalmers MJ, Kamenecka TM, Blüher M, Griffin PR, Spiegelman BM.

        Department of Cancer Biology and Division of Metabolism and Chronic Disease, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.
        PMCID: PMC3179551

        Figure 3.

        Figure 3b. Lower 2 panels. Near montonous backgrounds. Fully saturated bands. I wonder if the bands and backgrounds belong together. No real defects.

        PPAR panel. Bands have the look of small hulls on the water. Some are quite similar. 3 and 7.
        8 perhaps a smaller version.

  4. What were the reviewers of the paper doing?

    did they not check on previous publications and/or affiliations of the authors?

    1. Dear Busta: Would this would be the task of the reviewers? I get 50 papers from obscure institutions in China to review per year nowadays, and it is really out of the question that I should do verification of identities. This is clearly the task of the publisher and editorial office. In the same fashion, it is out of the question to do an in-depth plagiarism check for the reviewer. The whole system depends more or less on trust.

    2. BBRC is also not exactly known for their thorough review process. They advertise the journal with “From Submission to Online in Less Than 3 Weeks!”. People often submit there if they know competing groups are about to publish similar results, just to be first.

  5. “a scheme to defraud our editors, reviewers and readers with submission of a manuscript with falsified author and institutional information *and therefore wholly unverifiable scientific claims*.”

    This statement is interesting. They published the paper even though they now say its claims are “wholly unverifiable”. Doesn’t it imply that the review was bogus?

    1. No, they clearly don’t. As Dirk Lachenmeier indicates, the system is largely based on trust. Thus, we trust that someone whose name is on a paper is a real person who has participated in the reported research. Clearly, if none of the authors are real, there is no way to verify, retrospectively, the results. Results are claims, too, since it is claimed something is observed.

      1. I cannot follow that approach to reviewing. It is true that a certain element of trust cannot be avoided but it shouldn’t be blind trust. If I were an editor or reviewer, I would certainly check on the authors and see what other work they have done. Now there is an argument to be made that review should be blind and the reviewer shouldn’t know the identity of the authors. That is a valid approach (if difficult to implement convincingly). But certainly the editor must do due diligence before sending the paper out for review.

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