The ‘Iran Connection’: A ring of four research groups has published hundreds of dodgy papers, says whistleblower

A scheme of far-reaching research misconduct among several groups of Iranian researchers may have created hundreds of low-quality and fraudulent publications, according to a new detailed report by an anonymous whistleblower who has already forced the retraction of dozens of papers by one author in the ring.

The whistleblower, who goes by the pseudonym Artemisia Stricta, says that he or she is an expert in the field of construction engineering — the same as researchers behind the alleged misconduct.

In a new report now being made public by Retraction Watch, Artemisia draws attention to four main groups centered on Ali Nazari, Mostafa Jalal, a postdoc at Texas A&M University, Ehsan Mohseni of the University of Newcastle in Australia, and Alireza Najigivi of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. The whistleblower lists a total of 287 potentially compromised papers in the 42-page report.

Artemisia was instrumental in bringing about dozens of retractions of flawed research by Nazari, the most prominent of the names in his investigation. Nazari is now eighth on our leaderboard. The whistleblower now estimates that Nazari — who lost his job at Swinburne University in Australia as the retractions mounted — duplicated his own work in some 208 articles and co-authored 85 papers with his own fabricated “sock puppet” co-authors. 

The new allegations include images that appear reused in the same form or stretched, brightened or rotated; X-ray powder diffraction spectra that appear identical down to the shape of their signal noise; and similar subject matter to the point of repeated spelling errors and turns of phrase across publications. Artemisia writes:

That these groups have engaged in some manner of collaboration or communication with one another in the commission of these acts, though the exact nature of this collaboration or communication is unclear.

For example, in the image below, Artemisia compares two papers — one from Mohseni’s group in 2016, the other from Najigivi’s group in 2010.

Several X-ray powder diffusion spectra from one of Mohseni’s papers (left) side by side with one of Nazari’s papers (right).

In scouring the literature, Artemisia found that the apparent duplication of images was a relatively common occurrence. For example, Artemisia found 39 instances of alleged duplication in work from Jalal’s group alone.

Some of these instances apparently include image sharing between groups. In one example,  an image in Jalal’s paper “Mechanical, rheological, durability and microstructural properties of high performance self-compacting concrete containing SiO2 micro and nanoparticles” in Materials & Design seems to be the same as an image in Mohseni’s “Microstructure and durability properties of cement mortars containing nano-TiO2 and rice husk ash” in Construction and Building Materials, just at different aspect ratios and brightness.

An image from Jalal’s 2011 paper (left), compared with an image from Mohseni’s 2016 paper (right).

In a three-page response to the various allegations, Jalal addressed the allegations. He wrote to Retraction Watch in a follow up email:

[T]he materials provider or characterization companies could have provided similar data, or my team members might have provided me with wrong results, which I should have checked more carefully. However, I did not have any collaboration with Nazari whether you believe it or not.

Artemisia also wrote that:

The Mohseni group appears to have duplicated its own work in as many as 26 publications.

In one example, he showed that an image in one of Mohseni’s articles published in Construction and Building Materials appears to be the same image, flipped upside down as one in another of his works published in the Magazine of Concrete Research.

Four different papers by authored by Mohseni and collaborators with apparent image borrowing between them.

Mohseni acknowledged our request for comment but did not provide a response by deadline.

Artemisia suspects Najigivi also duplicated images. In one example, Artemisia wrote that an image in one of Najigivi’s 2010 papers in the journal Composites Part B: Engineering was republished in another paper of his three years later in the same journal. 

The report shows, side by side, an image from one of Najigivi’s 2010 papers (left) and one from a 2013 paper (right) which appears to use the same image to represent a different sample of concrete.

The report claims Najigivi has duplicated his own work in similar ways on a total of 11 publications. 

Some of Nazari’s work appeared to be based on Najivigi’s. At one point, this led to a corrigendum in which Nazari retroactively cited Najivigi. Artemisia points out that Nazari had submitted his paper, which appeared to be based heavily on Najigivi’s work, on June 23, 2010 despite the fact that Najigivi’s paper didn’t appear online until Aug. 12, 2010.

Najigivi wrote Retraction Watch saying that in 2012, after he called him out, Nazari wrote a letter confessing to stealing research from Najigivi. But Najigivi declined to share the letter or any supporting information with Retraction Watch.

He wrote in a follow up email to us:

[M]y researches and their results are golden which could publish them as US patents and till now used them in several constructions. The results are all original and we have all the laboratory documents. 

Artemisia is concerned that the field of construction materials engineering is becoming swamped with low-quality and fraudulent research, forcing researchers to spend considerable time and energy sorting out the good research from bad. The whistleblower wrote Retraction Watch in email:

In my view, most of the research being published in my field is unworthy of publication. 

Artemisia said the recent explosion in the field’s publication numbers is unsustainable, making for an inflated and low-quality knowledge base, writing writes early in the report:

The publication culture of the entire field is in jeopardy.

Despite the fact that Artemisia’s endeavors led to retractions and Nazari’s eventual resignation, Artemisia was disappointed in Swinburne University’s response in the Nazari case:

I was sad to see how the Nazari case played out. Swinburne University was confronted with unambiguous evidence of wrongdoing but did not appear to take meaningful action until after a large number of retractions had taken place. A number of journals and publishers have also seemed reluctant to act.

A Swinburne spokesperson confirmed by email that the investigation into Nazari took place, and stated that the university takes allegations of self-plagiarism seriously.

We could only find Nazari’s old institutional email, and he did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Some publishers did a better job than others responding to research misconduct concerns within their journals, according to Artemisia. SAGE and Hanser “both conducted rapid investigations and subsequently retracted their affected papers,” Artemisia wrote in the report, but others, like Elsevier and Springer have been “less encouraging.”

Artemisia contacted Michael Forde, the editor of Construction and Building Materials, an Elsevier publication and the largest journal in the field. Forde initially insisted that Artemisia reveal his or her identity before proceeding with an investigation, which the whistleblower said raises “serious concerns about the journal’s processes for self-criticism.” Artemisia noted that the journal publishes about 3,000 articles per year but has only ever retracted a handful. Eventually, Forde relented, but Artemisia is concerned that the career risks to whistleblowers are an issue. Forde referred our request for comment to Elsevier and a spokesperson sent us a statement by Suzanne Farley, Elsevier’s Research Integrity Director:

Artemisia’s report only mentions Springer Nature journals briefly, but says that they were contacted multiple times. Suzanne Farley, Springer Nature’s Research Integrity Director, tells Retraction Watch through a spokesperson:

Since concerns were brought to the attention of Springer Nature, our Research Integrity Group has been investigating a number of papers by Ali Nazari.  Twelve publications have been retracted and we can confirm that the group is investigating a number of others.  We are committed to investigating all concerns that are raised with us carefully and in line with COPE best practice guidelines, which can take considerable time.  Careful consideration is being given to the journals’ processes to ensure the quality of future content.

Artemisia wrote that the editor of the Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering (JMCE), Antonio Nanni responded to one of his many inquiries by writing:

I do not see any reason for JMCE to take any action.

Artemisia wrote that this:

seems to be the journal’s approach to all of my reports of publication misconduct.

Nanni referred our request for comment to the publisher, the American Society of Civil Engineers.  Dana Compton, the managing director and publisher of the organization wrote:

We would like to make a clarification with regard to [the editor denying there was a reason to investigate]. Subsequent to the communication referred to [when Artemisia contacted the editor], the whistleblower provided additional detail to the Chief Editor and the case was handed off the ASCE headquarters for investigation. The Chief Editor notified the whistleblower about this course of action. Publications staff launched a review of the content in question and thus far have not found evidence of overt plagiarism. However, given the breadth and volume of content in question, the review is still underway and final determinations have not yet been reached.

Nanni wrote, referencing Artemisia, that he was “not sure that whistleblower is the right term here.” He did not respond to a request to elaborate.

Update, 1300 UTC, 8/14/20: Using strikethrough and an addition, an error in this post about Suzanne Farley’s affiliation, and the lack of relationship between Construction and Building Materials and Springer Nature has been corrected. We regret the error.

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11 thoughts on “The ‘Iran Connection’: A ring of four research groups has published hundreds of dodgy papers, says whistleblower”

  1. Correction: the University of Newcastle is located in Newcastle, NSW, not in Sydney… (Newcastle is about 150 km north of Sydney.)

  2. Kudos to Artemisia Stricta! Science needs more of Artemisia Stricta and fewer of the stone-walling editors that are unwilling to stand up for research integrity.

  3. I am concerned at how many of the journal statements describe this as self-plagiarism. If you publish the same picture twice, labeled as the same thing, that can be self-plagiarism. If it is purported to represent two different things, it’s falsification as well, a much more serious problem.

  4. Why are you naming it ‘Iran connection’ and bringing the nationality here? There has been many other scientific forgeries in USA/Europe by americans/europeans and other nationalities, retractionwatch is full of them, I haven’t seen them being called as US-connection or anything close to that. It’s 2020, we avoided naming covid-19 as chinese flu like the previous ones (‘spanish flu’ for instance). I don’t see why a whole nation has to be attached to the misdeeds of a handful dishonest researchers.

    1. I do agree with you. Indeed, they named them as Iranian to reach their nasty goals. Everybody critcizes those publisher, but we do not need where they are from.

  5. What about Chinese researchers? Recently, I saw multiple retractions in Royal society journals especially in the domain of recovery of actinides. Please do raise your concerns about that too.

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