Anatomy journal retracts 13 papers

The Anatomical Record is correcting itself in a big way, pulling 13 articles, including several linked to paper mills

The papers, all by authors in China, were published between 2019 and 2021. 

Some were flagged in a September 2021 report on research misconduct by the Chinese government. They join a slew of articles The Anatomical Record has retracted since 2020 for similar concerns. 

Here’s an example of a retraction notice, this one for “Long noncoding RNA TUG1 facilitates cell ovarian cancer progression through targeting MiR-29b-3p/MDM2 axis,” which appeared in January 2020 from a group at the Department of Pharmacy at the Affiliated Hospital of Qingdao University: 

The above article, published in The Anatomical Record (DOI: 10.1002/ar.24367) is retracted by the Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Heather Smith, with notification to the American Association for Anatomy and Wiley Periodicals LLC. The decision is the result of an investigation based on concerns raised by a third party. The authors were not available for comments. Based on the investigation that revealed issues of scientific integrity in the data, the editors consider the conclusions of the paper substantially compromised.

And here’s a link to the other retracted papers

Heather Smith, the editor-in-chief of the journal — an official publication of the American Association for Anatomy — said the newest retractions arose from an inquiry she launched after taking over the editorship in January 2021. She credited one of her associate editors, Julian Guttman, a cell biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, with helping her identify the suspect papers, saying “he has become our go-to person” for articles in that field.

In January, Guttman found an article the journal had published that showed signs of having been milled but was not among the batch retracted in 2020. That discovery prompted Smith and her team to look at every article the journal published since 2017 for red flags — questionable images and figures; titles with tip-offs (“molecule x does something clinically relevant via a pathway or process”) that, at least in her journal, are a common trope for milled papers; groups from China with minimal academic qualifications:

In most cases the authors on these papers are not primarily scientists. A lot are students, medical students, clinicians — someone who needs a publication for a promotion. On ORCID they often have a shell profile if anything at all.

They also used PubPeer and Elisabeth Bik’s blog as resources to see if anyone else had noticed issues with papers in the journal. 

The result: 13 more articles that appeared to be unreliable. 

Smith then contacted the authors to inform them that she was conducting an investigation into their articles and to request supplementary data to back up their articles. None replied. 

She also sought advice from the legal team at Wiley, which publishes the journal, to make sure that she was following guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics. 

All 13 of the articles have now been retracted online, and the notices will appear in the December 2021 print edition, Smith said. 

Under Smith’s leadership, the journal has established a three-tiered approach to screening manuscripts which she said she hopes will “help prevent new submissions with data integrity issues from making it through to publication.”

Smith now screens every manuscript the journal receives — between 500 and 550 a year — for signs of having been through a paper mill. If it does, she asks the authors to upload their original data into ScholarOne. (Because the journal covers such a broad range of topics, from paleontology to evolutionary biology, asking for supplemental data for every manuscript would be impractical for some authors, she said, although eventually she may start doing so globally.) 

Smith estimates that only about one in three groups she contacts provide the requested data: 

I do feel confident that the process is working to some degree. In cases where authors don’t provide data, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily fraudulent but they’ve decided not to proceed with publication. 

Articles with lingering concerns get assigned to Guttman, a specialist in data integrity, who reviews them for evidence of misconduct. 

Finally, the journal sends every accepted manuscript to Wiley, where staff tasked with reviewing images look for overlooked evidence of manipulation:

If they see signs of manipulation they email me immediately and I can investigate. I ask authors for an explanation and supporting data.

To date, Smith said, the final step has flagged roughly a half-dozen papers, for which authors had innocent explanations for nearly all of the problems. In “one or two” instances the authors could not provide a satisfactory excuse — although those articles were submitted in 2020 before she began her prescreening system.

From the archives: A 2012 retraction in The Anatomical Record.

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2 thoughts on “Anatomy journal retracts 13 papers”

  1. In January, Guttman found an article the journal had published that showed signs of having been milled but was not among the batch retracted in 2020. That discovery prompted Smith and her team to look at every article the journal published since 2017 for red flags — questionable images and figures; titles with tip-offs (“molecule x does something clinically relevant via a pathway or process”) that, at least in her journal, are a common trope for milled papers; groups from China with minimal academic qualifications:

    This clashes with the Retraction Notes themselves, which recognise that “The decision is the result of an investigation based on concerns raised by a third party”.

    They also used PubPeer and Elisabeth Bik’s blog as resources to see if anyone else had noticed issues with papers in the journal.

    They could have saved some time by looking at the spreadsheet covering the output of a particular papermill, which took advantage of the gullibility of Anatomical Record’s editors.
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13K6zoo2oSATsFlY7YGyvm2_Xs1jibs0RH4nKQP5y8DY/edit#gid=0

    There are still at least two papermill products that haven’t been retracted yet.

  2. 13 articles, including several linked to paper mills.

    More precisely, all 13 articles had been listed as products of the same papermill that had provided the seven papers retracted from Anatomical Record in July 2020.

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