Not-so-tiny ethics issues as Micron retracts first-ever paper, and authors apologize for five duplicates

micronThe editors of the journal Micron — an Elsevier title — have retracted its first paper ever, and in an editorial marking the occasion, take on a number of issues in scientific publishing misconduct.

The beginning of the editorial (which is paywalled):

Micron has just had to retract a paper, for the first time in its 45-year existence. We hope it will be the last time. An author was writing a review of the topic, saw a micrograph in a Micron paper, and alerted us to the fact that it looked unreal. Computer analysis bore this out, and correspondence with the authors elicited the admission that the junior author did not think the image was good enough, and decided to ‘improve’ it in Photoshop. One ironic aspect is that the person who spotted the fakery frequently reviews papers for Micron, and had he been sent this one the problem might have been averted.

“We hope it will be the last time” — certainly we can appreciate what the editors seem to be trying to say here, but we don’t necessarily think zero retractions should be the standard. And not just because we, well, run a blog about retractions: Sometimes, retractions are necessary, and are the best way to correct the scientific record.

By the way, we’d suggest that if the editors do have to retract another paper, that they’ll reference and link to it if they write about it. Here’s the retraction, for “Sperm ultrastructure in two species of Panorpa and one Bittacus (Mecoptera),” published in 2010 by researchers at the Key Laboratory of Plant Protection Resources and Pest Management, Ministry of Education, Northwest A&F University, Yangling, Shaanxi, China:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editors. Figure 3 E and F have been manipulated, as admitted by the authors. As a result the integrity of the complete paper and its results is ambiguous.

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

The journal’s editors spend more time on an apology published in the same issue. Here’s the text of that apology:

We would like to apologise for the fact that some of our published papers in Micron were very largely based on previously published work in the journal Sociobiology. Also, several of our papers in Micron re-used micrographs from previous Micron papers without proper acknowledgement. We accept that both these actions were breaches of the requirement that submitted papers must be original work which has not been published previously.

In particular, Bution et al, 2008a, and Bution et al, 2010a, were almost entirely based on work previously published in Sociobiology. Bution et al, 2008b, re-used two micrographs from Bution et al, 2008a. Bution et al., 2010b used one micrograph previously published in Sociobiology. Bution et al, 2010c contained 2 micrographs from Bution et al., 2010b but did not cite that paper.

Bution, M.L., Caetano, F.H., 2008a. Ileum of the Cephalotes ants: a specialized structure to harbor symbionts microorganisms. Micron 39, 897–909.

Bution, M.L., Caetano, F.H., Zara, F.J., 2008b. Contribution of the Malpighian tubules for the maintenance of symbiotic microorganisms in cephalotes ants. Micron 39,1179–1183.

Bution, M.L., Caetano, F.H., Fowler, H.G., 2010a Proventriculus of Cephalotes ants: A structural and comparative analysis. Micron 41,79–83.

Bution, M.L., Caetano, F.H., 2010b. Symbiotic bacteria and the structural specializations in the ileum of Cephalotes ants. Micron 41,373–38.

Bution, M.L., .Bresil, C., Destéfano, R.H.R., de A. Tango, M.F, da Silveira, W.D., Paulino, L.C., Caetano, F.H., Solferini, 2010c. Molecular and ultrastructural profi les of the symbionts in Cephalotes ants. Micron 41,484–48.

A PubPeer entry includes some details of the overlap, and suggests that the problems may be worse than the authors let on. The first paper has been cited 13 times, the rest fewer than that.

Here’s the editors’ take, from the editorial:

Another ethics issue crops up in this issue, with the publication of an apology from a group of Brazilian authors. They published a series of papers in Micron, some of which contained large amounts of material – text and micrographs – which had previously been published in the journal Sociobiology. Some of their papers also have repeated images which had appeared in their previous Micron papers. The papers were cited, but none of the re-use was acknowledged.

Elsevier’s policy on re-publication is as follows: (Quoting from “However there are instances where an article might be published in local language in a local publication, which might then be considered for re-publication in an international journal. This of course can only happen with agreement between the two journals, and with a notice re the prior local publication, and if the editor-in-chief believes the article is significant and will reach a new or different community of readers.” Sociobiology is, arguably, a local journal, published in Brazil, but it is in English. It also does not claim copyright over its content, so there was no violation of copyright. That would have made the problem far more serious.

We have not retracted these papers since the science was sound and there was substantial new material in them. But the humiliation of having to publish an apology will, we hope, deter both these and others from doing the same thing.

Sure, but it might be helpful to readers to actually link the papers to the apology — especially if humiliation is meant as a deterrent. (Reasonable people will differ on how effective that is.) And we’re not sure why a more official Expression of Concern wasn’t in order here.

The editors go on to describe another case that didn’t make it into print, and end with some advice:

Plagiarism, and self-plagiarism, is a growing problem for Micron and many other journals, but it is also getting much harder to get away with. One paper we recently rejected had taken an entire paper (from other authors in another country) and just pasted in their results. Since Micron now subscribes to the Ithenticate service, which checks a huge database of papers for plagiarism, such behaviour will probably be spotted – you have been warned. This was a clear-cut case, but in two other recent examples authors had re-used their own papers just changing the samples used – in one case a different species, in another different material. Both were rejected for self-plagiarism. If you want to compare certain structures in a range of species, it makes far more sense to write just one paper making the comparison. One paper that does get published is better than three that do not.

Ithenticate will only – at the moment – analyse text, so we rely on editors and reviewers to spot re-use of micrographs. When is this permissible? First of all, never without acknowledgement. But in a review it is, naturally, OK (in some cases permission may be required). In a research paper the criterion is that it must be used to make a different point. If you just want to make the same point, use a reference to the original publication.

The rules are not hard to understand, nor are they overly stringent. Obeying them makes things much easier for all concerned.

5 thoughts on “Not-so-tiny ethics issues as Micron retracts first-ever paper, and authors apologize for five duplicates”

  1. mmhhh “five duplicates” as the post title reads, would be a set of 10 papers. Since plagiarism is growing, we will need to have a suitable nomenclature for multiplagiarism:

    duplicate: the paper has been published 2 times.
    triplicate: 3 times
    quadruplicate: 4 times
    quinqueplicate: 5 times
    sexaplicate: 6 times
    septiplicate: 7 times
    octoplicate: 8 times
    novemplicate: 9 times
    decemplicate: 10 times
    undecplicate: 11 times

    quinquagintiplicate: 50 times

    quingentplicate: 500 times

    milliplicate: 1000 times


  2. There are more issues in the duplicated papers unmentioned by authors and editors, as illustrated by the PubPeer entry. There are several more repeated images than disclosed and also considerable text (often most of the text) repeated from previous papers by the authors, and the results were directly assigned to different species in these cloned papers.

    Alas, this obviously conflicts with the confused claims by the editors — who apparently reached these conclusions without any support — that “science was sound and there was substantial new material in them” standing as main excuses for not having retracted these papers.
    Also, and quite importantly, Sociobiology was absolutely never a “local journal”, in fact it was a well-established periodical published in the US for many decades (when these papers were published) read by authors from different countries before merely lending its name only 2 years ago to an independent Brazilian version which also aims to global readership. This latter distortion of facts certainly served to bypass COPE’s guidelines in order to justify not retracting the papers, which would greatly expose the authors and their institution, mentioned in other cases described in this blog.

    I think the present case basically illustrates my general impression that nowadays the current system of publishers/editors is not only obsolete but inefficient in guaranteeing published quality. The current system tends to favour authors on top of readers (who deserve transparency), since the authors’ interests are ultimately moving its gears.

    I really think that post-publication peer review proves much more powerful in discussing the quality of published material and providing transparency to readers, and certainly quicker and less biased than vague editorial decisions that will tend to favour authors and institutions paying publishers’ bills.

    1. This is another classical case of Elsevier and COPE hypocrisy. Elsevier pays COPE tens of thousands of British pounds for membership fees to validate its publishing ethics. COPE creates, with these tens of thousands of British pounds, a few PDFs and fancy diagrams that show the world what and how unethical publishing is and how it should be incorporated as a retraction under clear and defined rules. Then along comes an Elsevier journal editor who not only admits to the misconduct by the authors, but then states, in euphemistic terms, that self-plagiarism and plagiarism of figures in his journal is acceptable, but “would have made the problem far more serious” had there been copyright infringement. As if copyright and ethics should be clustered into the same group. This editor makes a joke out of ethical publishing and although his message is a fumbled attempt at pardoning the turkeys, it is a clear attempt to divert the readership from the truth: the traditional peer review failed. An even though iThenticate has been once again praised, it fails to detect figure plagiarism. Elsevier, in this case, also makes a joke out of ethical publishing for not being able to enforce its COPE-idealized ethics uniformly across all its journals, and COPE is a joke for receiving tens of thousands of British pounds in “membership” fees for creating such simple ethics rules which its star members are not even able to implement, or enforce. Science publishing, thanks to publishers like Elsevier, and pseudo-ethics groups like COPE, is becoming a circus. I am now waiting in line for my chance at the trapeze…

      1. “As if copyright and ethics should be clustered into the same group.” — Exactly. I think this is because copyright is of the great economical interest basically of publishers, so the real pawns in this game (editors) will try to picture this as something to be taken even more seriously than fooling readers and colleagues.

        I am really not against COPE by principle, yet of course as any company they will have to defend the interests of their clients, which are ultimately publishers.

        We need a system that defends primarily the interests of scientists and science readers, and I think such a system would have to be as detached from benefit and monetary interests as possible.

        1. CR, you used the exactly perfect term to characterize Elsevier (as far as COPE is concerned): “their clients”. I re-emphasize, as I always do, I am not against the ethics that COPE advertizes, nor am I against their PDF flowcharts. But I am firmly against the use of the term “charity” to masquerade nothing less than the wide-spread (and successful) commercialization of ethics. I have said it before, I will say it again, and I will continue to say it everytime I have an opportunity: When ethics are sold, or traded, this in itself is an oxymoron and is the perfect antithesis of ethics itself. I do not stand against ethics. I stand against its use and abuse to serve a commercial purpose, in this case, the attempted validation by Elsevier of its publishing operations as somehow being “ethical” just because they pay a group tens of thousands of pounds. It is clear that in this case, the EIC of Micron is simply trying to save face, trying to save the “ethical glory” of this journal that he believed was in place for 43 years. With good reason. Noone likes to have their pride trampled upon. However, what the EIC needs to understand is that this is much larger than his superego, it is about the ethics and integrity of science and science publishing. What in fact now needs to happen is an in-depth analysis of all papers published at Micron, through post-publication peer review, to assess how far, how deep and how wide, errors may exist in terms of scientific flaws, plagiarism, duplication and other acts of scientific misconduct. Editors who continue to think they remain on a pedestal above the fray, above the masses and somewhere on a godly platform with Zeus or Jupiter are so very mistaken. They are now rapidly turning into the focal points of a broken peer review system, porous and flawed, that was unable to detect, despite the “peer” status, basic and fundamental flaws. Elsewhere on RW, I have also warned against this extremely dangerous marriage between Elsevier, the top rank of publishers, COPE, iThenticate, Crosslink, ORCID, and other key elements that are making Georege Orwell’s 1984’s Biog Brother look minisculous.

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