More than half of plant toxicity paper isn’t original, journal says

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Plagiarism and duplication can be deadly to a paper in any dose. In the case of a study on the toxicity of nanoparticles to plants, the publisher has presented the precise amount of plagiarism and duplications that ultimately felled the paper.

Specifically, according to Nanomaterials, 56% of Potential Impact of Multi-Walled Carbon Nanotubes Exposure to the Seedling Stage of Selected Plant Species” was taken from other work.

Here are more details from the retraction notice, published last year:

We have become aware that a substantial part of the main text of [1] is copied from multiple other publications. In total, 46% of the main text was taken from publications by the same authors [2,3] and 10% from other papers [4,5]. Because of the extent of text taken verbatim from previously published articles, we have made the decision to retract the article. All the authors of [1] have agreed to this decision. This paper is thus declared retracted and shall be marked accordingly for the scientific record.

MDPI is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and takes the responsibility to enforce strict ethical policies and standards very seriously. We aim to ensure the publication only of truly original scientific works. MDPI would like to apologize to the readers of Nanomaterials that this case remained undetected until now. We sincerely appreciate the efforts of anyone who brings matters of plagiarism to our attention in an effort to maintain scientific integrity.

The paper has been cited twice, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

A commenter on PubPeer raised another point about this paper — apparently four of the six figures are reproduced from other papers (with attribution). As the commenter notes:

How is it possible to claim that a paper is “original” when 4/6 (i.e., 67%) of the figures are not “original”? Surely, the most logical thing to have done would have been to submit only figures 5 and 6, and simply reference, in the text (Discussion section), Figures 1-4? That would surely make a smaller, more compact, but fully “original” paper?

The authors should clarify these queries. The publisher, MDPI, should indicate why so much already published figures can lead to a paper being considered as an “original” research paper. Where does the border lie between “original” and repetitive?

Indeed, figures 1 through 4 each note that they were “reproduced with permission” and cite the original source — one paper by the same authors, “Phytotoxicity of multi-walled carbon nanotubes assessed by selected plant species in the seedling stage,” published in Applied Surface Science in 2012 — and another paper by other authors, “Dissection of Arabidopsis Bax Inhibitor-1 Suppressing Bax–, Hydrogen Peroxide–, and Salicylic Acid–Induced Cell Death” published in The Plant Cell in 2004.

Even though the authors note the original sources of the figures, that seems like a large amount of duplication for a paper.  We asked Nanomaterials editor in chief Thomas Nann if the figures raised any red flags during the submission process. He looked at the original reviewer reports, and told us that out of four referees:

one of them questioned the novelty of the work indeed. The authors have revised their manuscript and the guest editor then accepted it (it was part of a Special Issue, where guest editors make the final decision). All I can say is that I am sorry that this happened in the first place, but I cannot really see that anyone acted negligent or indifferent. Given the large numbers of submissions that journals receive nowadays, it may happen that plagiarism is being discovered after a manuscript has been published without being able to blame anyone in all fairness (except for the author of course).

Nann said that the paper inspired a new policy at the journal:

After the incident you are referring to, we amended our procedures and check all submissions for plagiarism prior to sending them to reviewers. However, there is no guarantee that we discover everything of course.

We’ve reached out to the authors of the retracted paper — Parvin Begum, Refi Ikhtiari and Bunshi Fugetsu, all at Hokkaido University in Japan — for comment. We’ll update this post with anything else we learn. 

Hat tip: Arun Naika

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