Will the real Tim Chen please stand up? A trip down the rabbit hole of deceit

Marianne Alunno-Bruscia

When Marianne Alunno-Bruscia, the research integrity officer at France’s national oceanographic science institute, uncovered nearly a dozen papers with fraudulent authorship, she thought she’d stumbled on something bizarre. 

She didn’t know how right she was. 

As we reported in early February, the problems arose during an audit the research activities of the L’Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer (iFREMER), which  the organization was conducting to satisfy a request from the French High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education – a bureaucratic headache, to be sure, but one which in this case proved well worthwhile. 

The bibliographic deep-dive turned up two curious articles bearing the name of Bertrand Chapron. That part wasn’t unusual. Chapron, a wave researcher, is prolific. Odd was the nature of the two papers. Neither was in Chapron’s fields of interest. Chapron disavowed any involvement in the work, and insisted that he’d never met the two main authors of the articles: Tim Chen and C.Y.J. Chen.

Alunno-Bruscia and her colleagues learned that 11 articles had been attributed to researchers including Chapron and Alexander Babanin of the University of Melbourne between 2018 and 2021 – but those authors had no involvement in the work.

The papers were scholarly shipwrecks – bizarre topics, rampant plagiarism, gobbledygook syntax, implausible academic affiliations – covering a range of topics including aquaponics, water treatment, video surveillance robots, Pokémon GO and turnover in the hospitality industry. 

Between 2018 and 2021, Alunno-Bruscia learned, Tim Chen and C.Y.J. Chen had published no fewer than 68 articles together spanning 46 journals.  

Alunno-Bruscia began contacting the journals that had published the work to demand they retract the bogus papers (to date, none has, although one journal removed Chapron and Babanin from the list of authors without a note of explanation to readers). She also set about notifying the Chen’s many stated academic homes, an impressive, if implausible, list of institutions around the world. As Alunno-Bruscia wrote on PubPeer:

The author C.Y.J. Chen exhibited 29 different academic affiliations in different institutes and/or universities in 15 different countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United States, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Brasilia, Australia, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Spain, Egypt) for the 66 articles (at least) published between 2018 and 2021 in which he is a co-author with Tim Chen.

Among those 29 institutions were Cankaya University, in Ankara, Turkey, and Ton Duc Thang University, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as Caltech. Alunno-Bruscia said she has been in touch with an attorney at Caltech to discuss the case and called the discussion “helpful.”

Meanwhile, commenters have been flooding PubPeer with posts about the Chens’ dubious scholarly output and affiliations, with examples here, here and here

The case gets knottier still. In July 2014, as we reported then, the scientific publisher SAGE issued a startling announcement:  One of its titles, the Journal of Vibration and Control, was retracting 60 papers after determining that the articles had been implicated in what it described as a “peer review and citation ring.” SAGE blamed the scandal on Peter Chen, a former professor at National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan. According to the publisher, Chen – and possibly others – “assumed and fabricated identities … to manipulate the online submission system” for the journal. 

According to Alunno-Bruscia, Peter Chen is none other than C.Y.J. Chen – and Tim Chen’s twin brother. She suspects that the latest authorship scheme is an attempt for the Chens to continue publishing in the wake of the 2014 scandal. 

We weren’t able to reach Tim Chen by email. However, Alunno-Bruscia showed us several messages between John Chen and Chapron and Babanin, which ranged from indifferent to rambling and unhinged. 

In one email, dated Dec. 1, 2020, John Chen said he was “supervised by Dr. Tim” – we think he meant the opposite – and that he saw “no similarity with your research even I felt how coincidence you got the same name as my previous student who had some creative ideas and was co-authored in some publications.” 

In another, from Jan. 29, 2021, John Chen defended the papers as having been through “serious peer reviews” that found the work “original.” 

In fact, Chen asserted: 

I realize your papers are also full of misconduct [full of plagiarized text]. … If you keep attacking our research team, we will also be forced to start to tell all the truths to any of your colleagues, managers, journals and the reporters … Finally, your name is nothing for me and I have no interest to put your name in my paper.

The next day, however, Chen appeared to have a change of heart, at least briefly. He wrote that he would be willing:

to remove those names of the student with the same name as you, but you keep looking for the journals to push me to the edge. If you don’t Hurry up to clarify this misunderstanding with the journal you hooked then some of your articles will be at risk of being retracted. 

But Chen went on to declare that: 

paparazzi and reporters who crackdown on counterfeit papers worldwide are interested in your hundred manipulation papers instead of my eight undoubtedly original papers. .. Let’s see who bigshot will be damaged on the retraction watch website and banned from publishing on various journals in the future in case of serious ethical misbehaviors from the online database

One would think he would have responded eagerly to our request for comment, but alas.

Chen  then closed with a threat, declaring that if the two aggrieved researchers did not “clean up the mess” they made: 

I will launch all resources to disclose what you cannot imagine under the sun and you will hurt the beloved by your own bold arrogance.

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5 thoughts on “Will the real Tim Chen please stand up? A trip down the rabbit hole of deceit”

  1. One of its titles, the Journal of Vibration and Control, was retracting 60 papers after determining that the articles had been implicated in what it described as a “peer review and citation ring.”

    Followed by another tranche of retractions from other journals. IIRC, Chen and Chen amassed enough retractions to be on the Leaderboard for a while. Perhaps they will return to that giddy empyrean.

  2. From Hoya camphorifolia over at https://pubpeer.com/publications/1C6913179865309E5B096A0B0AD9D9:

    “Is it possible that T. Gong-Yo was inspired by Gong-You Tang, who has published on very similar topics, e.g. “Performance-based near-optimal vibration control for nonlinear offshore platforms with delayed input” (Zhong et al, 2019)? Gong-You Tang is affiliated to College of Information Science and Engineering, Ocean University of China, Tsingtao… curiously, in the present paper, last author J.C.-Y. Chen claims that affiliation.”

    Wow, so the M.O. is to absorb the affiliations of the authors whose work they’re stealing (if they’re even bothering to do that)? What is this, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutan– I mean, Scientists?

    Also, the blustering in the email is hysterical. It doesn’t look like Chen et al needs any assistance with engarbling .

  3. Wow, so the M.O. is to absorb the affiliations of the authors whose work they’re stealing

    Possibly relevant:

    Could the authors comment on the previous appearance of much of the present material, in “Networked predictive vibration control for offshore platforms with random time delays, packet dropouts and disordering” (Ma, Hu & Tang, 2019)?

    1. Yeesh. (Not just the M.O., but also the data.). So, essentially, every affiliation listed is a person whose work they’ve appropriated. Thank you for the link!

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