Researcher notches fourth retraction, has left university

Plant Ecology

A researcher with four retracted papers has left his former institution in Malaysia, according to an official at the university.

In March, we reported on the retractions of two studies in Environmental Geochemistry and Health co-authored by Muhammad Aqeel Ashraf. Both papers were pulled citing a “compromised” peer review process. The now-retracted work was carried out at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Ashraf was previously based.

However, Ashraf later moved to University Malaysia Sabah (UMS) in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; but now, according to an official at the institution, Ashraf is no longer based at UMS after “suspicion” arose into his work. 

An ecology journal has also retracted a fourth study co-authored by Ashraf after concluding that its peer review process had also been compromised.

Mohd Harun Abdullah, vice-chancellor of UMS, told us:

Aqeel has joined our university for a year and we have suspicion on his work. Investigation was carried out. Our management has taken appropriate action and he is no longer with our university.

He noted, however, that

the papers that were retracted [were] published when he was with another university.

Here’s the latest retraction notice for Ashraf, issued by Plant Ecology:

This article has been retracted by Editors-in-Chief. After a thorough investigation carried out according to the Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines, we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised.

The 2014 paper, “Floristic and ethnoecological diversity in various habitats of a semi-arid area in the Chakwal district (Pakistan), with special emphasis on medicinal plants,” has so far been cited once (by another of Ashraf’s papers), according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

As we reported previously, Ashraf also has a 2012 retraction to his name, which was issued after the lead author (not Ashraf) took responsibility for using the study’s underlying data without permission from the other authors.

Mushtaq Ahmad is a co-author on three of the now-retracted papers. Mehwish Jamil Noor, Muhammad Zafar, Maliha Sarfraz and Ismail Yussof are each present on two.

In June, academics at the University of Malaya were involved in an unrelated case of misconduct, which resulted in two retractions and one expression of concern.

In total, this case adds to a list well more than 300 papers retracted for faked, rigged or compromised peer review. Here’s our 2014 Nature feature on the phenomenon if you need a bit more background.

We’ve reached out to Ashraf, and will update the post with anything else we learn.

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