Former grad student forges his supervisor’s authorship — and gets smacked down

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On December 29, Jan Behrends, of the Institute of Physiology at the University of Freiburg, in Germany, was checking his Google Scholar profile when he saw his name on a paper — one he’d played no part in writing. 

The article, “Microelectrochemical cell arrays for whole-cell currents recording through ion channel proteins based on trans-electroporation approach,” had appeared earlier that month in Analyst, a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry. According to Behrends:  

I was obviously extremely shocked and wrote to all co-authors asking for an explanation and started making inquiries. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before (and I really hope it will never happen again.)

The paper had been written by a former graduate student at Behrends’ institution, who had worked with him for a period of about five years but was posted to a different department entirely. The former student, Tianyang Zheng, had since moved back to his home country of China for a career in industry, but recently had returned to academia. In an email exchange with Behrends, Zheng apologized for the deception: 

He told me, I need papers here to be able to continue to work in academia; this is why I didn’t want to involve you because I wanted to publish quickly.

In an apparent attempt to dupe the journal, Zheng had used a slightly altered version of Behrends’ email address (missing a critical dot). The change caused an initial outgoing message from the publication’s manuscript trafficking system to come back as “undeliverable.” But rather than raise a red flag with the editors, the result was that all future emails sent by the publication to the authors dropped Behrends from the group — a critical loophole. The result, however, was that: 

I was the only one of the four co-authors who never got an email [about the manuscript] …

Behrends, with the help of a “co-author,” Gerhard Baaken — who confessed to him that he had not read the paper, citing time pressures in a new position — analyzed the study and found a host of errors. 

According to the notice, which Behrends drafted and which could cause blunt-force trauma to those involved: 

We, the named authors, hereby wholly retract this Analyst article due to concerns with the reliability of the data and the veracity of the representations in the published article. This manuscript was submitted without the permission or knowledge of Prof. Jan C. Behrends, the principal investigator in whose laboratory the experimental work was performed. Prof. Behrends was not aware of the contents of this article.

The article wrongly claims that trans-bilayer electroporation and subsequent whole-cell recording was successfully performed on cells that had been positioned using trans-bilayer dielectrophoresis (DEP). In fact, this has been impossible so far, because the mechanically unstable cell-on-bilayer configuration does not allow the necessary exchange of extracellular solution. The inset in Fig. 3 panel (a) shows a microscopic image of a cell positioned on a synthetic bilayer using DEP, but the traces shown in panels (a–c) were recorded after seeding cells at high density to increase the probability of a cell coming to rest on a bilayer and DEP was not used. In addition, contrary to what is suggested, the traces shown in panel (c) were not recorded from the same bilayer as those shown in panels (a) and (b), but came from a different experiment. The result shown in Fig. 4 does not meet the standard of a representative result, this experiment having been performed only once in the course of this study. Furthermore, a loss of whole-cell current after a few minutes was frequently observed spontaneously, without adding BaCl2, likely due to resealing of the lipid bilayer. Thus, by any generally accepted benchmark, the conclusion implied by this result is highly doubtful.

The article wrongly states that the methods shown constitute a robust and simple novel approach to on-chip whole cell recording. In fact, success rates of initially obtaining whole-cell access are well below 50% and, as mentioned above, whole-cell access has been mostly transient, lasting a few minutes.

In addition, the article fails to clarify that the microstructures used are not novel but have been published in detail before (T. Zheng, G. Baaken, M. Vellinger, J. C. Behrends and J. Rühe, Generation of Chip Based Microelectrochemical Cell Arrays for Long-Term and High-Resolution Recording of Ionic Currents Through Ion Channel Proteins, Sens. Actuators, B, 2014, 205, 268–275).

The article, superfluously, perhaps, also carries the following correction

The authors regret that incorrect details were given for reference 18 in the original article. The correct version of reference 18 is given below as ref. 1.

The Royal Society of Chemistry apologises for these errors and any consequent inconvenience to authors and readers.

Reference 1 is: 

M. Dipalo , G. Melle , L. Lovato , A. Jacassi , F. Santoro , V. Caprettini , A. Schirato , A. Alabastri, D. Garoli , G. Bruno , F. Tantussi and F. De Angelis , Nat. Nanotechnol., 2018, 13, 965-971

We emailed Zheng for comment but have not heard back. 

Behrends said the senior author, Jürgen Rühe, tried to dissuade him from pursuing a retraction, and then argued for a softer notice. But he held his ground:  

I said no, this is very unethical behavior. 

Despite the email issue, Behrends commended the journal for acting so swiftly, with the retraction coming barely a month after he first saw the article: 

I have to say, the journal behaved very professionally, very well. 

Behrends said Zheng had unsuccessfully attempted to publish another article in a different journal, Bioelectrochemistry:

In their case the the very same thing happened: I was dropped from the e-mail list. They reconstructed that when I asked them to, and told me that the exact same variation of the e-mail address had been used as in the Analyst case. The big difference was that the paper was rejected, with devastating reviews.

It was an awful paper, just awful. I saw the manuscript and I was ashamed. I wrote to the editor and asked him to tell the referees that I had nothing to do with it. Which he promised to do.

Update, 2230 UTC, 2/4/20: We have also found that Zheng used Behrends’ name on this paper, which appeared in the proceedings of the 2019 20th International Conference on Solid-State Sensors, Actuators and Microsystems & Eurosensors XXXIII. Behrends, who had been unaware of the publication, by IEEE, responded: 

That’s awful. [I]t clearly fails to mention that the chip structure was published long ago (Sens. Actuators 2014).  My name is misspelt, and there is a “new” last author that has nothing to do at all with the stuff (Zhu, Zheng’s new PI). Plus, they acknowledge funding from the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation, which is completely ridiculous.

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3 thoughts on “Former grad student forges his supervisor’s authorship — and gets smacked down”

  1. The line:

    “I said no. This is very unethical behavior.”

    has fallen out of the quote-box in which it belongs.

  2. Props to the former supervisor and the junior researcher. On the other hand I just can’t get the senior author’s deeds. I suppose just like most German PIs he already has very safe career (they are automatically made civil servant) and no longer needs promotion.

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