PhD student expelled for submitting paper without co-authors’ consent

PLOS OneA PhD student has been expelled from a university in China after publishing a paper in PLOS ONE without the permission of her co-authors, and using an external company to complete some of the work. 

PLOS ONE has now retracted the paper, noting that they were tipped off to the problems by a reader who raised concerns about some of the figures. The notice states that the study’s first author, Zhenni Zhang, takes full responsibility. 

The last author of the paper Zongfang Li from the Xi’an Jiaotong University in China — told us Zhang was his PhD student who was close to completing her PhD, but has now been expelled.

Here’s the retraction notice, issued on July 25:

After the publication of the article, a reader raised concerns about several figures in this article:

  • In Figure 5A, the p-p38-MAPK panel appears to be the same as the TIMP-1 panel in Figure 6C, when flipped horizontally.

In Figure 4B, the MMP-2 panel appears to be the same as the TIMP-2 panel in Figure 6C, when flipped horizontally.

These concerns were brought to the attention of the corresponding author, Zongfang Li, who stated that the submission was handled by the first author Zhenni Zhang without the knowledge of the other listed authors. An institutional investigation conducted by the Second Affiliated Hospital School of Medicine, Xi’an Jiaotong University indicated that Zhenni Zhang submitted the article without the knowledge of the listed co-authors and that some of the work was completed by an external company. Ms. Zhang takes full responsibility for these actions. Upon follow up, the editors have not had access to the data underlying the results reported in the article.

In light of the concerns identified and the lack of original data from the study, the PLOS ONE Editors have serious concerns regarding the integrity of the work and as a result retract this publication.

The 2014 paper, “Baicalein Reduces the Invasion of Glioma Cells via Reducing the Activity of p38 Signaling Pathway,” has so far been cited 11 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Li told us that Zhang nearly managed to complete her PhD program, adding:

She needs this paper to get her PhD degree. Due to the heavy burden from clinical work, she didn’t have too much time to conduct all the experiments.

To conduct the remaining experiments and get help with writing up the manuscript, Zhang approached an external company. According to Li, Zhang didn’t tell him the name of this firm, but said it helps students finish their experiments and write-ups.

Li noted that all experiments and paper submissions must be conducted under his supervision and with his permission in his lab, but Zhang submitted this paper with notifying him or the other authors. He added:

She cannot get the raw data from the company. So I have let other students in my group to repeat the experiments and they got the similar trends…

Li is listed as the corresponding author on the paper, and has been responding to our questions via that email address.

We reached out to PLOS ONE, and couldn’t find contact details for Zhang. We’ll update the post with anything else we learn.

Update: 7/28/16 12.20 p.m. ET: We asked Li to confirm if he knew about the submission. He told us:

I didn’t know anything about this paper until I got the inquiry mail from the editor.

We asked how he could not know about the paper, given that he is corresponding author. He added:

Dr. Zhang told me that she registered another email for submission and just listed my email address on the manuscript. The submission related mails were all in her inbox.

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10 thoughts on “PhD student expelled for submitting paper without co-authors’ consent”

  1. In my experience, PLOS ONE editorial staff send a carbon copied email to all the authors upon acceptance of manuscripts. I’m sure many readers here have papers published in PLOS ONE and can confirm whether or not this is done as a matter of course. As Prof. Li’s email address (assuming it’s not a fake!) is listed on the retracted paper, he should have received this notification email upon acceptance and publication of the paper in early 2014, more than two years ago, and consequently been aware of it all this time until the eventual retraction.

    1. Zonfang Li has a prior publication in PLoS One. The e-mail address is the same as that of the now retracted paper, and Zhenni Zhang is not an author. Draw your own conclusions.

  2. I would say that the supervisor was not responsible to take of his students . As a master degree students who done his MBBS and Msc in China , I would say that most of the supervisors are trying to push their students to publish while at the same time wanting them to keep working at the wards .

  3. At the first place the journal is to blamed. How come the paper in question is considered for peer review without the signed consent of all the co-authors, which many other standard journals routinely do as a matter of policy.

  4. From the post: “Dr. Zhang told me that she registered another email for submission and just listed my email address on the manuscript. The submission related mails were all in her inbox.”

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