Journals retract two heart papers with “nearly identical” abstracts

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.46.17 PMJournals have retracted two papers after realizing that they contain “nearly identical” abstracts and introductions, published only months apart. 

The two retracted papers, along with a third that also contains similar text, all conclude that a certain polymorphism could signal a risk for coronary artery disease among Chinese people, though each paper presents different data. The papers do not have any authors in common; the first authors are all based at different hospitals in China. The editor in chief of one journal told us that some of the reviewers did not use institutional email addresses, which leaves open the possibility that they were fake emails, and the peer-review process was compromised.

Here’s the first retraction notice, for “Fibroblast growth factor receptor 4 polymorphisms and susceptibility to coronary artery disease,” published in DNA and Cell Biology. The notice states the paper contains:

…striking overlap with two other published papers:

  1. • Chen H, Tong J, Zou T, Shi H, Liu J, Du X, Yang J, Ma C Fibroblast growth factor receptor 4 polymorphisms are associated with coronary artery disease. Genet Test Mol Biomarkers, 16:952–956, 2012, DOI: 10.1089/gmtb.2012.0033.

  2. • Zhu Q, Liu T. Fibroblast growth factor receptor 4 polymorphisms and coronary artery disease: a case control study. Mol Bio Report 39:8679–8685, 2012, DOI: 10.1007/s11033-012-1723-1728.

The abstracts and introductions in each published paper are nearly identical. The data sets are modestly different, but indicate the same findings.

The paper was submitted to and reviewed in DNA&CB in 2011, prior to the Journal’s current policy whereby only reviewers with institutional email addresses are utilized for peer review.

The paper has four citations, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science. An email to last author Xuebo Liu who is affiliated with Tongji University in China bounced back.

All three papers were published in quick succession — the DNA&CB paper was published online in February and in print in June, 2012; the GTMB paper appeared online in May, 2012 and in print in August; and the Molecular Biology Reports paper went online in June, 2012, and in print in September.

We contacted DNA&CB editor in chief Carol Reiss, who instituted in 2015 the policy of only using reviewers with institutional emails. She told us:

The paper was considered by an editor and her assistant prior to my Editor appointment.  I do not know the reasoning they used in selection of reviewers for this paper and the decision to publish it.

We asked Reiss by phone if some of the reviewers used non-institutional email addresses. She said:

This was the case with this paper.

We asked if the peer review process had been compromised. Reiss said that she could only make inferences:

We rejected the paper. I think that says enough about it. I don’t go out of my way to retract papers that I believe should be in the literature.

Reiss told us by email how the issue came to light:

We were contacted by an expert in the field who noticed some uncanny similarity between the publication in DNA and Cell Biology and one of the other papers.  That prompted the review and then the decision to retract.

Reiss then forwarded her concerns to GTMB, according to the retraction notice for that paper:

This decision was made as a result of the Journal being contacted by Dr. Carol Reiss, Editor-in-Chief of the journal, DNA and Cell Biology, who informed us that a plagiarism report she generated revealed that this article, and two others published by an overlapping group of authors—all at approximately the same time—contain very significant overlaps with titles, abstracts, and introductions that are virtually identical.

The GTMB paper has been cited once.

We’ve reached out to the last author on the GTMB paper, Changshen Ma, affiliated with the Capital Medical University in China. According to his webpage, he has published “about 800 papers.”

The editor in chief of Genetic Testing and Molecular Biomarkers, Garth Ehrlich, told us that his journal also has a policy of only using peer reviewers with institutional email addresses — but that started since he took over as editor one year ago, after this paper was published.

We’ve reached out to Molecular Biology Reports to see if a retraction of that paper is forthcoming; a spokesperson for Springer got back to us to say that she is looking into the issue. We’ll update this post with anything else we learn.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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