A journal waited 13 months to reject a submission. Days later, it published a plagiarized version by different authors

When a researcher submitted a manuscript to a journal about multimedia tools, she was frustrated to wait 13 months for the journal to make a decision — only to have it reject the paper outright. So imagine how she felt when, days after the paper was rejected, she saw the journal had published a plagiarized version of the paper by a group of different authors.

Clearly, something went very awry here — especially since the journal, Multimedia Tools and Applications (MTAP), has retracted three papers by the same group of authors, all of which plagiarized from unpublished manuscripts by other people.

Of course, one possibility is that an author was a peer reviewer of the manuscripts, and stole the unpublished material — something that unfortunately does happen.

There are four authors in common to all three manuscripts, but only one — corresponding author Chao Xiong of the Changzhou Institute of Technology in China — has responded to any queries from MTAP, according to the retraction notices. As the notices state, Xiong agrees with one of the the retractions, but not the other two. (All of the papers cover similar topics and were submitted around the same time, so it’s unclear why Xiong didn’t object to one retraction.)

Here’s a sample notice, for “Image-based reversible data hiding algorithm toward big multimedia data:”

This article is retracted at the request of Editor-in-Chief because its content has been duplicated from an unpublished manuscript authored by Rupali Bhardwaj without permission. Author Chao Xiong does not agree to this retraction. Authors Yuan Li, Ruxi Xiang, and Ju Zhu have not responded to any correspondence from the editor or publisher about this retraction. The online version of this article contains the full text of the retracted article as electronic supplementary material.

We’ve emailed Xiong, as well as journal editor Borko Furht at Florida Atlantic University, but haven’t heard back. All three papers were submitted within one week in December, 2017, and accepted between six and 15 days later.

A representative of Springer Nature, which publishes the journal, told us:

Three researchers whose manuscripts were rejected from MTAP notified us that published articles in MTAP had been plagiarized from their unpublished work. We conducted an extensive investigation and found evidence that the peer-review process for a number of articles in MTAP may have been manipulated. The EiC requested to retract three articles for which there was evidence that material had been plagiarized. As this investigation is still ongoing, we are unable to disclose how the corresponding author of the retracted papers may have obtained unpublished material.

According to Rupali Bhardwaj, she contacted the journal when she saw the paper. Bhardwaj — a researcher at Thapar Institute of of Engineering and Technology — said her paper was rejected from MTAP more than one year after she submitted it. Here’s the abstract from the paper she submitted in December 2016:

In encrypted image based reversible data hiding (EIRDH), image provider is responsible for encryption of the image to maintain its confidentiality, data hider is responsible for data embedding into encrypted image in a reversible manner and receiver is responsible for extraction of secret message and recovery of original image in a lossless manner. Encrypted image based reversible data hiding through difference expansion (EIRDH-DE) is presented in this paper. Proposed algorithm solved overflow problem with embedding capacity of one bit per grey pixel (embedding capacity is same as size of cover image). Finally, experimental results reveal that proposed algorithm has much payload and high image quality than traditional ones based on EIRDH.

And the abstract of the paper that was published by Xiong and colleagues earlier this year:

The reversible information hiding based on image encryption (eirdh), the image provider is responsible for image secure data hiding and encryption for data receiver embedded into image encryption in a reversible charge in a lossless manner and restore the original image to extract the secret information. Image based hidden encryption through differential expansion of reversible data (eirdh-de) is proposed in this paper. The algorithm solves the overflow problem of one bit embedding capacity of each gray pixel (the embedding capacity is the same as the coverage image size). Finally, experimental results show that the proposed algorithm has more efficient and high-quality images than the traditional eirdh based ones.

Bhardwaj told us:

I don’t know how this happened.

Bhardwaj forwarded us an email she sent to MTAP, in which she wrote:

It is a clear case of fraud as my work was illegally copied and published by different authors while keeping my paper under review for more than 13 months.

Bhardwaj’s paper was rejected January 3, 2018; Xiong’s paper was submitted December 6, 2017, and accepted on December 14. It was published online January 7.

We also contacted Bee Ee Khoo, co-author of another unpublished manuscript mentioned in one of the notices. Khoo — based at Universiti Sains Malaysia — told us their paper was also rejected from MTAP. They found the plagiarized version during a literature search and alerted the journal:

We are not sure how the authors obtained the content. We have earlier published a conference article in Springer. Later we submitted an extended version of the article to a few other journals for review in sequence. One of them is MTAP who has published the retracted article. We received the rejection from MTAP prior to see this article in MTAP. We suspect that one of the authors could be one of the reviewers who review our article but we are not sure. The authors have presented the article in different ways but the technical part is the same as ours.

None of the four authors in common to the three retracted papers are members of MTAP’s editorial board.

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8 thoughts on “A journal waited 13 months to reject a submission. Days later, it published a plagiarized version by different authors”

  1. Is it just me, or does the plagiarized abstract have much better grammar than the original? Kind of surprising. Usually, plagiarists introduce grammar errors, either through ignorance or in an effort to evade automatic detection. Certainly, I’ve never known them to make the effort to *improve* the article they’re plagiarizing!

      1. This case is interesting because the paper was published in the same journal not plagiarized and submitted to a different journal, so many questions arise: when was the plagiarized paper peer reviewed?
        Why wasn’t the text overlap detected? Who peer reviewed the plagiarized manuscript? Was the original paper desk-rejected or rejected after peer review?….

        1. Plagiarism check is first step. If manuscript clear that test only then it is eligible for paper review. So journal should take the responsibility and face the facts.afterall it is someone’s hard work

    1. except that the plagiarists have mangled the abbreviation in the first line: “reversible information hiding based on image encryption (eirdh)” (in the second abstract).

      As a copyeditor, this usually alerts me to use of translation software (garbling of a jargon term or phrase)

    1. According to his ResearchGate entry, Chao Xiong specialises in nanotechnology research… nanoparticles and thin films.

      No indication, there, of a side-interest in multimedia and algorithms for handling high-information-density media. Yet in January 2018 he claimed the authorship of those MTAP papers and uploaded them to the ResearchGate entry (presumably unlisting them at a later date):

      I also see that his nanotechnology papers and the ones at MTAP credit the same research grants with funding his work, so it is indeed the same Chao Xiong.

      What impresses me here is the versatility of his interests.

  2. Time for an update? A tranche of five retractions from MTAP have shown up in the database, dated 1 April 2020. This is on top of the 16 retractions dated June 2019, and the 13 from May 2019. Some of these retractions have only shown up recently, I guess because the papers in question have only recently progressed to the stage of being officially published (rather than at the stage of ‘Early View’).

    There are also 10 retractions from Journal of Visual Communication and Image Representation – papers retracted because they were duplicates of already-pirated papers published in MTAP. The dates of those retractions are not always clear, as some are accompanied by separately-dated Retraction Notes while others have the ‘retraction’ announcement replacing the original publication record.

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