A researcher with 30 retractions and counting: The whistleblower speaks

Via U.S. SEC Office of the Whistleblower

Retraction Watch readers who have been following our coverage of retractions by Ali Nazari may have noticed that an anonymous whistleblower was the person who flagged the issues for journals and publishers. That whistleblower uses the pseudonym Artemisia Stricta, and we’re pleased to present a guest post written by him or her.

Something is seriously out of place with the roughly 200 publications by Ali Nazari, a scientist at Swinburne University who studies structural materials. Some of these problems have been known by journals and publishers for years — some since 2012 — yet their response has been mixed. Some have retracted papers. Some have decided not to, so far. And others have been mum.

The issues are serious enough to call into question the reliability of Nazari’s entire body of work. During 2010-2012, around 30 of Nazari’s papers duplicated images from Li et al. 2004, reporting that the materials had been produced by his group. The images, whose scale, orientation, brightness and contrast has been changed from the originals, reportedly represented materials different from those in Li et al.

In about as many papers, Nazari’s team — then at Islamic Azad University — also recycled its own figures, in the form of SEM images and XRD spectra, reporting that the images represented a variety of different materials and conditions. Much of the text and the results were also duplicated among the papers. Work that may reasonably have constituted the basis for 15-20 papers was stretched into roughly 200. In many cases, similar work was submitted under vastly varying authorship lists, raising questions about ghost or gift authorship. 

The five identical retraction notices by Energy and Buildings reported, “This article is one of many, around 70 papers[,] with really high similarity to previously published work (possible text-recycling, redundant publication or salami slicing).” The International Journal of Materials Research issued an even more scathing set of three retractions: “It appears that Ali Nazari et al. have followed a scheme of duplication and falsification.”

One particularly striking aspect of this work had to do with the materials used. Roughly 70 papers reported on cement and aggregates identical to those previously used by Givi et al. 2010. However, Givi reported that the materials had been obtained in Malaysia, whereas Nazari reported that the materials were obtained in Iran. The similarity between differently-sourced materials was unlikely to the point of impossibility: all fifteen reported compositional and physical parameters were exactly identical and even presented in the same order.

What’s more, the reported specific gravity of the cement (1.7 g/cm3) was physically implausible (typical values are 3.0-3.3 g/cm3), and the composition did not comply with the relevant code (highlighted in the figure below). In 2015, Nazari retroactively credited Givi et al. as the progenitors of the work, which led to this corrigendum (why not a retraction?) in Materials Science and Engineering: A. However, this explanation leaves as many questions as answers, because the two teams’ work was not identical. Of note: Nazari submitted his paper while Givi’s original was still in review.

Some of the conduct was incredibly brazen. Three copies of a single SEM micrograph were presented next to one another in a single paper (besides in many other papers), claiming to represent three different materials or conditions. Four slight variations of a single paper were published in the same issue of Computational Materials Science. When I saw this, I was dumbfounded. How was this not caught in peer review? How has this never been corrected?

A slow and ongoing process

I began notifying journals in January 2019. Due to the scale and severity of the matter, notification has been a slow and still ongoing process. In fact, my own understanding of the works continues to evolve, as the full scale of the duplication and attribution issues was not immediately apparent to me.

In terms of the response, SAGE Publications and Hanser Publications have led the way. Nazari had published 22 papers in two SAGE journals, Journal of Composite Materials and International Journal of Damage Mechanics. After an investigation lasting about nine months, every article published by the Nazari group in both of these journals was retracted. The International Journal of Materials Research, a Hanser publication, decided to retract all three of their Nazari papers less than two weeks after I contacted them.

The response from Elsevier has been more anemic. I began notifying some Elsevier journals about this issue in January. I continue to do so on an ongoing basis, as I learn more and as Nazari continues to publish new papers. At least seven Elsevier journals appear to have been affected by the duplication and attribution issues, but only Energy and Buildings has retracted their papers. One journal that I notified recently, Construction and Building Materials, has begun an investigation. Still, given the aforementioned corrigendum, it seems that Elsevier was made aware of some form of misconduct by 2015. How has this matter lingered for so long?

I reported the misconduct to Springer journals in July. The chief editor of their computer science journals responded, “I can confirm that we are indeed aware of the allegations surrounding Dr. Nazari, and completed an investigation in 2012. The outcome of the investigation was to not retract any of the papers. […] We have not published any papers from Dr. Nazari since 2012 […] .” The latter statement does not appear to be quite true

One or both of two things has happened here: either the investigation was not sufficiently thorough to fully ascertain the problems behind these publications or — a more disconcerting possibility — the investigation did reveal the issues, but the publisher did not find it necessary to correct the record or to notify other publishers. If they had done so at the time, perhaps the field could have been spared seven years of problematic publications by Nazari? 

I wrote to Springer that, in my view, the record still requires additional retractions. Springer’s communications director responded, “We are investigating the concerns you have raised, but I am afraid that as thorough investigations take time we cannot provide a further response at this time.”

I appreciate all of the hard and often thankless work that editors put into publishing. I understand that retracting papers is no one’s favorite work and that there’s a real need for due diligence. Nevertheless, something here has to give. A massive body of work that has passed through the hands of hundreds of reviewers and editors, besides tens of thousands of readers, is gravely and undeniably out of sorts. In my assessment, it is not necessarily clear that the work was ever done at all. The integrity of the literature requires immediate retraction.

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a tax-deductible contribution to support our work, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, or subscribe to our daily digest. If you find a retraction that’s not in our database, you can let us know here. For comments or feedback, email us at team@retractionwatch.com.

4 thoughts on “A researcher with 30 retractions and counting: The whistleblower speaks”

  1. Thanks whistleblower!

    Looking at the website at Swinburne univerisity, Nazari has received a Government ARC future fellowship and an ARC discovery grant.

    The fellowship is highly prestigious and very difficult to get. ARC discovery grants are also very difficult to get. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer funds, it also means that Nazari has deprived others of funding.

    A concerning issue, is that Nazari would have submitted a curriculum vitae for review, which means that the ARC and the reviewers overlooked the extraordinary scientific output. Indeed, it is likely it was this scientific output that won the fellowship and grant in the first place. It makes me wonder how many others have exploited the granting system.

    Not only should Swinburne University be called to account, but the ARC has some explaining to do.

  2. Of course, this is not good to report fake data or duplicate a research paper. However I am thinking that “What was the benefits of such publication in our life, that now the retraction can positively affect?”
    I believe publication is kind of game to get promotion, fund or reputation. The real and valuable findings are never published.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.