Note: This post has been updated.
Here’s an object lesson for scientists who find out they’ve been ripped off by other researchers: Taking matters into your own hands can produce results.
An aggrieved author’s doggedness led to the retraction of a 2013 paper that plagiarized his work, along with the revocation of a doctoral degree by one of the scientists responsible for the theft and sanctions against another.
We don’t often get the blow-by-blow, but in this case we have the details to share. The story begins in early 2017, when Andrew Boyle, a professor of cardiac medicine at the University of Newcastle, in Australia, noticed something fishy in an article, “Cathepsin B inhibition attenuates cardiac dysfunction and remodeling following myocardial infarction by inhibiting the NLRP3 pathway.” The paper had appeared in a journal called Molecular Medicine Reports, from Spandidos.
The article, published by a group from Shandong Provincial Hospital, contained a pair of figures that Boyle recognized from his 2005 article in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology. One of the images had been altered, but the other was a patent duplication.
Boyle explained that:
I did a Google image search of a Massons Trichrome stain of a myocardial infarct to test some new software. I recognised the image as it was my first published image from my PhD, but when I clicked on it I saw it was in another paper. I know every bit of that image, including the zoomed in images, so I knew immediately. They had also changed the axis labels in the graphs, very low quality fraud.
In March 2017, Boyle contacted Elsevier, which had published his 2005 paper, but the company demurred [SEE UPDATE BELOW]. An Elsevier representative repeatedly referred Boyle to Spandidos. Eventually, Boyle gave up, but not before sending this reply:
They have illegally stolen your copyrighted figures, I thought Elsevier would want to pursue them about this.
But Boyle had also contacted the plagiarizing authors’ institutions in March.
A PhD revoked, an award returned
Here’s what Shangdong told Boyle, in a Sept. 18, 2017, email that he forwarded to us [we haven’t edited it]:
After hearing from your letter, Shandong University and Shandong Provincial hospital has carefully investigated into this issue. We require the corresponding author and the first author to provide the detailed original data of the dissertation. Liu Aiguo, the first author, claimed that the experiments of the dissertation were entrusted to Guangzhou Kainuo Biological Technology Co., Ltd, and the experiment was designed by Liu aiguo and operated by the company. So far, the raw data of the experiment had been missing or could not be found. The first author could not confirm whether Figure 4 and Figure 5 were carried out by the company or not. The corresponding author demanded retraction actively.
The hospital president’s office has made the following decisions:
- The Academic Commission of Shandong University decides to withdraw the first author Liu Aiguo’s doctoral degree (student number 2011120057), Cui Lianqun shall be disqualified from postgraduate students recruitment of all kinds in 2018 and 2019.
- The 7420 RMB award of the dissertation in 2014 shall be fully returned.
- Cui Lianqun shall be disqualified from award and scholarship applications
- We have circulated a notice of criticism within the hospital.
We are very sorry for the trouble caused for you!
Shandong University Cheeloo College of Medicine
Lianqun did not respond to a request for comment.
Boyle contacted Molecular Medicine Reports in August of last year. Of the three parties Boyle contacted, they acted most swiftly. The retraction notice appeared online Sept. 20, 2017:
An interested reader drew to our attention the fact that Figs. 4 and 5 in the above-mentioned article had already been published as Figs. 4 and 5 in the following paper [Boyle AJ, Kelly DJ, Zhang Y, Cox AJ, Gow RM, Way K, Itescu S, Krum H and Gilbert RE: Inhibition of protein kinase C reduces left ventricular fibrosis and dysfunction following myocardial infarction. J Mol Cell Cardiol 39: 213-221, 2005]. Following an investigation, the Journal was able to confirm that this accusation of plagiarism is well-founded. On those grounds, the Editorial Board has decided to retract this paper. Every effort was made to contact the authors in this regard, but without success. The Editor deeply regrets any inconvenience that this retraction has caused to the readership of the Journal [the original article was published in Molecular Medicine Reports 8: 361-366, 2013; DOI: 10.3892/mmr.2013.1507].
Two small quibbles with that. Boyle, of course, was the “interested reader.” And the “investigation” was external.
Boyle says he hasn’t started “scouring the literature” for more evidence of plagiarism of his work.
I am just hopeful that [this post] raises awareness and that this ceases happening. But I am not too confident that it will completely stop.
We have an update/correction for this post. Boyle has provided us emails between himself and Elsevier which make clear that the publisher did contact Spandidos on his behalf. A representative for Elsevier told Boyle that the other firm had proposed issuing a correction for the article — an outcome Boyle rejected:
They cannot weasel out of this plagiarism by an erratum
This is fraudulent and I do not agree to that.
Spandidos should be ashamed of themselves suggesting that. We want a full retraction on the grounds of blatant plagiarism
Nothing else will be satisfactory.
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