Journal slaps 13 expressions of concern on papers suspected of being from a paper mill

An abandoned paper mill, via Flickr

The journal Artificial Cells, Nanomedicine, and Biotechnology has attached expressions of concern to 13 papers published in 2019 that a group of sleuths have flagged for potentially being from a paper mill.

In February, Elisabeth Bik wrote on her blog:

Based on the resemblance of the Western blot bands to tadpoles (the larval stage of an amphibian, such as a frog or a toad), we will call this the Tadpole Paper Mill.

Bik explains in her post that she and her colleagues — including pseudonymous sleuths @MortenOxe@SmutClyde, and @TigerBB8 — had been working on a set of 17 papers that Jennifer Byrne and Jana Christopher had also been scrutinizing:

As previously described by Christopher (see above), the Western blot bands in all 400+ papers are all very regularly spaced and have a smooth appearance in the shape of a dumbbell or tadpole, without any of the usual smudges or stains. All bands are placed on similar looking backgrounds, suggesting they were copy/pasted from other sources, or computer generated.

Taylor & Francis, the publisher of the journal, posted this on top of the journal’s Table of Contents:

Taylor & Francis has been made aware of potential issues surrounding the scientific integrity of a number of articles published in Artificial Cells, Nanomedicine and Biotechnology. In accordance with COPE guidance, we are currently conducting an investigation into these concerns. We are conducting this work as quickly and diligently as possible, and are reaching out to the authors of the affected articles to obtain additional data and other information that will inform our investigation. We will provide updates on our investigation as soon as possible.

The expressions of concern for the 13 papers all read as follows:

After publication of this article, questions about the scientific integrity of the article content were brought to the Publisher and Editor’s attention. We have reached out to the authors requesting that they supply information that would confirm the article’s integrity, but the authors have not responded to our queries within the requested timeframe. Therefore, as we continue to work through the issues raised, we advise readers to interpret the information presented in the article with due caution.

The papers are among 76 from the journal — and more than 400 overall — that Bik and colleagues flagged as likely emerging from a paper mill. All of the papers’ authors are affiliated with Chinese institutions. As Bik and colleagues note:

They sell these papers to e.g. medical doctors in China who need to have a scientific paper published in an international journal in order to get their MD, but who do not have any time in their educational program to actually do research. 

‘A great job so far’

Bik tells Retraction Watch:

So it seems that the EoCs were issued for papers in which the authors have not responded at all, while the papers with responsive authors have not been flagged with an EoC yet. That is good news, because it means that the authors are responding in the majority of the ACNB papers we posted on PubPeer. It would be great if these authors could disprove our suspicions about the Western blots and other figures by showing the original raw data. If they could show us the uncropped films or raw, unedited flow cytometry files from their papers, they can prove us wrong. Or, if they outsourced their experiments, the authors might be able to tell us at which company or laboratory. 

Taylor and Francis has been doing a great job so far in addressing our concerns. It is very rare to have a journal and publisher be as responsive and fast as they have with this case. 

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5 thoughts on “Journal slaps 13 expressions of concern on papers suspected of being from a paper mill”

  1. That is good news, because it means that the authors are responding in the majority of the ACNB papers we posted on PubPeer.

    It is also possible that T&F began their investigation and sent out a first batch of messages to the nominal authors’ nominal email addresses when the spreadsheet first went on-line; then a second batch of messages when we added more entries to the spreadsheet; and so on. Then, after some reasonable period of time expired without a response, the first batch of Expressions-of-Concern went up. If this is the case, then we can expect more Expressions to appear as other nominal authors reach the time limit for responding.

    This would also be good news, as it would tell us that the publisher reacted very quickly.

  2. 400 dodgy papers at about $2500 author fees per paper is a cool million dollars into publisher coffers. What is the incentive for these publishers not to do this? Until some form of financial penalty gets linked to publication of poor quality papers, this is not going to stop.

  3. “. . . but the authors have not responded to our queries within the requested timeframe. Therefore, as we continue to work through the issues raised, we advise readers to interpret the information presented in the article with due caution.”

    Failure of the author(s) to respond to a request for further information should not mean that the publisher “continue to work through the issues raised . . . ‘ but should mean an immediate retraction of the articles in question with no chance of appeal.

    I fully understand the publisher wants to be fair but really, if the author(s) can’t be bothered to respond to requests for clarification the publisher shouldn’t waste their time.

    1. All the evidence suggests that the putative authors never receive the messages from the publishers. The “corresponding author email addresses” are single-use throwaway accounts set up by the paper-mill (who handle all the details of manuscript submission / revision as part of the package) and abandoned as soon as each manuscript has been accepted and paid for.

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