‘Striking’: Journal editor suspects paper mills behind rash of withdrawn manuscripts

Carol Shoshkes Reiss

Carol Shoshkes Reiss describes it as “especially striking.”

I have been Editor-in-Chief of DNA and Cell Biology for the last decade.  It has been rare for authors to request withdrawal of a paper they have submitted.  However, in the last two weeks, six papers have been withdrawn on request.

What really puzzled Reiss, a professor emerita at New York University, was that two of the withdrawals used identical language — down to the incorrect punctuation and stilted phrasing:

Dear Editor, Thank you very much for your assistance. However, we are sorry that we have to withdraw the submission of our paper…The reason is that, first, if we revise the paper according to the reviewers’ comments point by point, we will pay much time to make tests and then plot the data in the revised paper, second, we feel that we have not yet studied our work completely and have some difficulties to answer some questions of the reviewers’ comments and add their answers or solutions in the revised paper quickly. I am very sorry that we have to make this decision and continue our investigation of this work further. I appreciate the reviewers very much for their careful work and helpful suggestions. Thank you again.  Best wishes

Reiss has her suspicions. Both of the papers, she said

probably originated in a “paper mill”, as the analysis of the originating i.p. address for one included 30 submissions, and for the other 31 submissions (these papers were received sequentially by our website).  These papers were from scientists based at medical centers in two different cities in China.

Emails to corresponding authors of both papers from Retraction Watch have so far gone unreturned.

The existence of such paper mills has earned attention of late thanks to the efforts of sleuth Elisabeth Bik and a small group of colleagues, mostly anonymous. The team has identified hundreds of papers, including many “that all appear to contain Western blots with the exact same background, often accompanied by hairball-like flow cytometry plots.”

Reiss explained:

The requests for withdrawal came after editorial review that determined that the submitted files were not formatted to our requirements, and that underlying data were not provided; the submissions had been returned to the authors.  It is our policy to demand detailed clinical data for each individual human subject, raw molecular data, and Uncropped scans of membranes used for Western blot analysis.

Some other cases Reiss shared:

In other instances, withdrawal requests have come when we have asked for validation of the hypothesis in bioinformatics studies.  “We plan performed experiments in the future, so we wish to be considered for publication in another journal” was one statement.  

Another author, whose paper came from an i.p. address with  >150 submissions, said: “I am sorry to tell you that I have to withdraw my manuscript… It’s because of the improper file preservation, some of our files are missing.  Therefore I could not submit the documents you required.”

“The author highly agrees with the importance of experimentation for this study, but due to the limitations of current conditions, I regret that the author cannot solve the problem you raised (“you must experimentally validate the hypothesis”). So when seeing your email, it sent shivers down my spine.”

“I am sorry to inform you that we would like to withdraw the manuscript…  We need to add additional data to finish the whole research story, which may take much more time.” That request was especially striking, since I did not ask for underlying data, just the institutional approval numbers for lab animal and human studies and details about the lab animal experiments [and formatting issues which were trivial].

Reiss continued:

Many authors agree that providing additional supporting data is appropriate and some request additional time to allow the team to perform the necessary studies.  We are always happy to accommodate the extension of deadlines.  There are other authors who simply walk away, and never acknowledge the requests; I suspect they find another journal whose standards are less rigorous.  I don’t keep tally of those numbers, just decisions we make either based on editorial review (rejection for a variety of reasons) or following peer review.

Reiss’ journal, we should note, earned praise earlier this month from Bik for a swift retraction.

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2 thoughts on “‘Striking’: Journal editor suspects paper mills behind rash of withdrawn manuscripts”

  1. “Another author, whose paper came from an i.p. address with >150 submissions”. Wouldn’t the ip address just point to a large scientific institution, hence the high number of submissions?

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