Editor declines to correct paper with duplicated image after earlier study disappears

Figure 6b in a 2015 paper (left) in Construction and Building Materials, showing a material with copper oxide nanoparticles. Figure 6 (right) is from a separate study, published in the Journal of American Science, showing a material with titanium dioxide nanoparticles.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law — at least, it seems, for one journal editor, who is refusing to retract a study despite learning that one of its images previously appeared in another journal. The reason? The other study has been removed from the web. 

The paper is among 40 articles in Construction and Building Materials flagged by a whistleblower who goes by the pseudonym Artemisia Stricta. The whistleblower says that most of the issues are serious, and are:

related to matters of scientific integrity (potential cases of plagiarism, falsification, author manipulation, duplicate publication, etc.), and others appeared to be honest but serious mistakes. 

The same whistleblower has already flagged hundreds of other papers about construction materials. Artemisia’s reports have led to dozens of retractions for Ali Nazari, for instance, who lost his job at Swinburne University, in Australia, after a misconduct investigation in 2019, and is ranked fifth on the Retraction Watch leaderboard.

Back in 2019, Artemisia spotted two papers that appeared to contain the same image. A 2014 paper, titled, “Rheological, mechanical and durability properties of self-compacting mortar containing nano-TiO2 and fly ash,” included a scanning electron micrograph of a material that apparently contained copper oxide nanoparticles and was published in the Journal of American Science

Then, a 2015 paper, titled, “Effect of nano-CuO and fly ash on the properties of self-compacting mortar,” was published in Construction and Building Materials, and had a scanning electron micrograph of a material with titanium dioxide nanoparticles. That paper has been cited 59 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

The images in the two papers, says Artemisia, are the same. Ehsan Mohseni, a researcher in the Iranian “research ring” behind “hundreds of dodgy papers,” according to the whistleblower, is an author on both of them.

After the whistleblower flagged the duplicated images in 2019, the paper in the Journal of American Science disappeared from the internet without a retraction notice. In January of this year, Michael Forde, the editor-in-chief of Construction and Building Materials, sent an email to Mohammad Ali Yazdi, the corresponding author on the 2015 paper, and asked about the duplicated image. 

Yazdi — a researcher at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China who, in emails, has also listed an affiliation of Ghent University in Belgium — penned a response to Forde on January 28, according to emails seen by Retraction Watch. He argued that, since the Journal of American Science paper had been removed from the web, the Construction and Building Materials study remained valid:

The article published in the Journal of American Science (with details of 2014;10(11):222-228, No. 30) was submitted with some errors and through one of its authors. Since the other authors were not aware of the submission, this article was withdrawn after several back and forth emails, and the article is not currently shown in the web page of the journal. We should confirm that the SEM image in the article entitled “Effect of nano-CuO and fly ash on the properties of self-compacting mortar” is correct.

Forde closed the case on the same day, according to emails seen by Retraction Watch, writing:

A satisfactory resolution has been achieved with the withdrawal of the paper that you [the whistleblower] highlighted in the Journal of American Science (with details of 2014;10(11):222-228, No. 30). Thus the CBM papers remain valid. This enquiry is now completed following the above paper withdrawal.

Artemisia called the decision “shocking,” and told us that the two “papers contained smoking-gun evidence of falsification.” The whistleblower continued:

In every case that I reported to [Construction and Building Materials], the authors had claimed that the non-[Construction and Building Materials] publications were the mistaken ones (even when they predated the [Construction and Building Materials] ones). In the case of the image in the Journal of American science, the paper was stealthily retracted without an appropriate retraction notice. Shockingly (to me, at least), [Construction and Building Materials] accepted this as sufficient grounds to retain the paper without correction.

The whistleblower then emailed Forde and cc’d his “entire editorial board (or at least the 43 editors whose emails I was able to track down),” to vent his frustrations on Elsevier’s “lagging” response to the allegations. A couple weeks later, on February 12, an Elsevier spokesperson said that the publisher was “looking at appointing a dedicated ‘ethics’ editor to investigate these issues,” according to an email seen by Retraction Watch. 

Forde told us to direct requests for comment to Elsevier. Andrew Davis, the publisher’s vice president for communications, confirmed that an independent editor had been appointed to investigate Artemisia’s allegations, but also told us that many of the whistleblower’s allegations were baseless:

In response to the efforts of a serial whistleblower, CBM has consolidated investigations of all allegations with one Senior Editor allowing a consistent and equitable approach to resolution. All allegations have been investigated; some are resolved, others continue. CBM takes seriously all such allegation. Many of the allegations received have been baseless while others have resulted in retraction.

The whistleblower told us that, of the 40 or so papers that have been flagged so far in Construction and Building Materials, only a handful have been retracted:

To the best of my understanding, [Construction and Building Materials] has decided to retract three (3) papers, correct nine (9) others, issue one (1) editor’s note, and not to change the record on an additional nine (9). So far, only four (4) corrections have posted to the publisher’s website. The remaining twenty (20) or so papers that I’ve reported are presumably still being investigated.

In an email, Mohseni told us that he was willing to correct mistakes in his articles, but also took aim at the whistleblower’s anonymity and credibility:

The authors strongly believe that it’s authors’ right to know who and with what academic background and intention raises allegations to make sure that there is not personal hostility involved. Just for your information I would like to let you know that after our explanations to editors all his/her allegations have been proved to be groundless so far. 

When we followed up with Mohseni and asked about a specific claim of image duplication made by the whistleblower, though, he did not respond. 

The journal declined to act in another case flagged by Artemesia. In 2019, the whistleblower suggested that figure 5b in a paper, titled “Effect of nano-CuO and fly ash on the properties of self-compacting mortar,” was the same as figure 7c in a paper titled, “An experimental investigation on the durability of self-compacting mortar containing nano-SiO2, nano-Fe2O3 and nano-CuO,” which has been cited 63 times. Both papers were published in Construction and Building Materials and are authored by Mohseni.

Figure 7c in a 2015 paper (left) in Construction and Building Materials, compared to figure 5b (right) from a separate study, published in the same journal.

When Forde asked Yazdi — who did not reply to requests for comment — about this allegation, according to emails seen by Retraction Watch, he claimed that they forgot to cite it:

Both figures in these two articles (both published in CBM) are related to the sample with nano-[copper oxide]. However, as these two articles were submitted and accepted almost at the same time, the authors missed the chance to refer to the one with slightly earlier publication date. The dates can be seen in the articles.

The two papers were submitted to the journal about seven months apart. No action has been taken by the publisher.

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5 thoughts on “Editor declines to correct paper with duplicated image after earlier study disappears”

  1. Just to be clear, motivation for reporting possible misbehavior does not bear on the truth of the report.
    If the data are corrupt, the motivation and anonymity of the whistle-blower are irrelevant.
    Image duplication is not a matter of opinion or enmity, it is a matter of verifiable fact.
    The arguments about motivation only apply if you do not have independent, verifiable, objective evidence and need to evaluate the claims by means other than the available objective data.
    Two identical photographs, even if labeled with different scales and meta-data, do not represent different things. It doesn’t take months of investigation to determine this. And the motivation for pointing this fact out is irrelevant – it is a verifiable fact, not an interpretation.

  2. The SEM micrographs in figure 7c and 5b are not exactly the same image. They are from the same area of the sample but the working distance is different as noted in the instrument generated data at the bottom of the image. As an editor I would still find this objectionable.

  3. Well put Warren. How is this reasonable:

    A ‘These two images are identical’
    B ‘Maybe. But how tall and handsome are you?

    I also think it’s an indication of their poor attitude that they use the phrase ‘serial’ whistleblower. Consider every other description of a person starting with the word ‘serial’.

    1. IKR? For some reason, the authors who churn out all this stuff are not called “serial self-plagiarists”. The epithet is applied instead to the critics, who make the same complaint again and again because self-plagiarism is kind of repetitious.

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