Exclusive: Mayo, Florida profs among authors of article tied to Indian paper mill

Yuguang Liu

Two assistant professors at universities in the United States are coauthors of a review that appears to have been advertised for sale by the Indian paper mill iTrilon, a Retraction Watch investigation has found.

One of the professors, Yuguang Liu of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is also guest editor of the MDPI special issue in the journal Biosensors in which the review was published last year. The other professor, Ajeet Kaushik of Florida Polytechnic University, in Lakeland, sits on the editorial boards of Biosensors and several other titles from MDPI, Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature and other publishers.

An MDPI representative said Liu, who declined an interview request, had not been involved in editorial decisions regarding the paper. Meanwhile, Kaushik acknowledged his work on the article had sprung from a LinkedIn message from a researcher in India who, as we reported last week, has been offering co-authorship in return for help getting his articles published.

“This is sad,” Kaushik told us by email, adding that he had not seen “any red flags” when he agreed to collaborate on the review. 

Ajeet Kaushik

“I contributed to this review article as an ethical co-author,” he said. “I am making it clear that my role in this article does not have any involvement of money or other exchange offers.”

The paper’s link to iTrilon became apparent during a six-month Retraction Watch investigation for Science that found paper mills had taken to bribing journal editors to ensure publication of their articles. Based in Chennai, iTrilon sells authorship of “readymade” scientific papers and gets them published through a network of editors with whom it claims to be working. The company’s website was taken down following our story.

As we reported in a companion piece to the Science article, papers advertised last year by iTrilon buoyed the research output of Dionisio Lorenzo Lorenzo Villegas, a professor and dean at Universidad Fernando Pessoa-Canarias, in Las Palmas, Spain. Lorenzo acknowledged paying the company.

The review in Biosensors is one of the six papers Lorenzo coauthored in 2023 that could be linked to iTrilon. The matching ad was posted in July and referred to a “review article” about “diagnostics for colorectal cancer,” to be submitted to a journal “indexed in PubMed, Scopus and Web of Science” with an impact factor above 3. 

These details are all consistent with the review, “Current Status and Emerging Trends in Colorectal Cancer Screening and Diagnostics,” which was submitted to Biosensors on August 29.

But Giulia Stefenelli, chair of the scientific board of MDPI, said the publisher was not investigating the paper. 

“It is important to note that establishing a direct link between the articles and the content advertised by the cited platform is not an easy process. The titles of the articles and the number of authors do not immediately correlate with the published material. Should we receive further evidence that clearly distinguishes the relationship to the publications unequivocally, we will proceed to initiate an official investigation,” Stefenelli told Retraction Watch.

Liu, who is a corresponding author of the review, did not agree to an interview. But she said in an email that she was “unaware” of the iTrilon ad matching the paper and that “I don’t think it’s related to my paper or the special issue on MDPI.”

We were unable to find contact information for the review’s first author, Shreya Singh Beniwal of Lady Hardinge Medical College, in New Delhi. Beniwal was also first author of a research article coauthored by Lorenzo, which unequivocally matched a previous ad from iTrilon and has now been retracted. 

How the authors came to collaborate on the review is only partly clear. A LinkedIn message from last spring reveals ArunSundar MohanaSundaram, an assistant professor at Sathyabama Institute of Science and Technology, in Chennai, and co-corresponding author of the review, had been proffering author slots on manuscripts to researchers who could help get them published. 

“I’m ready to offer ‘co authorship’ if you could review the work and support me as an EDITOR in reputed journals,” MohanaSundaram, who has coauthored several papers advertised for sale by iTrilon, wrote in the message, as we reported last week. He did not respond to repeated emails.

MohanaSundaram, Lorenzo and Beniwal came up with the idea for the review article, according to the statement on author contributions.

Kaushik said he had not heard of iTrilon until we reached out to him. But he acknowledged being contacted by MohanaSundaram:

Yes, I was approached by Dr. Arun on LinkedIn but at the beginning of this REVIEW ARTICLE. Then this paper moved forward by email exchanges. The similarity Index was acceptable, and all figures were either self-designed or with the permission. So, I did not see any red flags. I was involved in this article due to my credentials in the field of biosensors and nanomedicine.

Kaushik added:

Please note, that I am a young scholar and working hard to make a good name based on clean and ethical research. I generally want to help, but such incidents are centaily aletrs, and I will be more careful and reserv in the future [sic]. 

Presently, I am seeing some of the approaches (so-called shortcuts) to get easy or sponsored publications. BUT, I do not like and support such approaches.

Both Mayo Clinic and MDPI emphasized that Liu had not been involved in editorial decisions regarding the manuscript.

“The paper’s scientific review, revision, and submission process was handled by an Assistant Editor, Mila Opacic, not Dr. Liu,” Andrea Kalmanovitz, director of Communications – Media Relations at Mayo Clinic, said in an email. She did not reply to follow-up questions about how Liu had come into contact with far-flung authors linked to paper-mill articles.

According to Stefenelli at MDPI:

The article was accepted by the Section editor-in-chief of “Nano- and Micro-Technologies in Biosensors,” to which the Special issue belongs, Prof. Michael Thompson. In accordance with MDPI editorial procedure, Guest Editors are completely excluded from the peer-review process and decision-making stages for articles submitted by themselves and their colleagues. The MDPI procedure seeks for an independent assessment by a member of the Editorial Board for all cases of conflict of interest (https://www.mdpi.com/ethics#_bookmark17).

Kaushik, who is a member of the editorial board for the same section of the journal, said he had not been involved in any editorial decisions regarding the review article, nor in the selection of the journal.

Update, 1/24/24, 0930 UTC:

In an email received after this story ran, MohanaSundaram denied any ties to iTrilon and the ads matching his papers. “I am shocked to see your news article which portrays that I am involved in the insane paper mill business. I am strongly against such unethical practice which is a threat to the research fraternity and the society,” MohanaSundaram told us. “I never came across any such Advertisements and I don’t have any relationship with iTrilion [sic] or any such paper mills.”

He added that he was “always open to research collaborations” and that “For some papers, I feel that higher level of expertise (beyond my capacity) may be required to improve the quality of the manuscript. In such case, I may have approached some editorial board members or experts.”

“My intention is that Editorial board members from good journals have a great experience and expertise, hence they can guide in the best way to match the top notch quality of good journals and the trends in current and advanced research,” MohanaSundaram said. When these individuals made “significant contributions” to his papers, he said, “they “ethically” become a leader/corresponding author of the paper in due course of preparation of the final manuscript.”

“Hence, to state that I don’t have any objections in such ethical grounds, I sometimes mentioned regarding authorships in the initial communications”, MohanaSundaram told us.

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15 thoughts on “Exclusive: Mayo, Florida profs among authors of article tied to Indian paper mill”

  1. paper mills had taken to bribing journal editors to ensure publication of their articles

    I am not convinced that this is a recent development.

    1. I know it’s been happening since at least 2020, as that’s when I received this email:
      From: Service.Rep@51scihelp.com [mailto:omer@51scihelp.com]
      Sent: Monday, 23 March 2020 5:47 AM
      To: Peter Vamplew
      Subject: Request for Paper Publication
      Greetings of the day !
      This email is to inform you that Mr. Michael Lee, the owner of this online editing consultancy called 51scihelp.com has instructed me to request you that his consultancy clients are interested to publish their papers in the Special Issue Journal at which you are a Guest Editor. Please let me know, if you can help him in this regard so I can forward your acknowledgment to him and he may personally contact you for further proceeding. If need be, you may enlist yourself as the co-author in his clients papers to ensure paper publication in the Special Issue Journal.
      As per Mr. Lee, attractive incentives are offered to the editor for this service ranging from 1000-5000$ USD/1 research paper depending on the reputation of the targeted journal.
      Waiting to hear back from you
      Regards
      Service Representative
      51SCIHELP
      36 Anping Street, Zhengzhou, China

  2. The MDPI special issue edited by Dr. Yuguang Liu currently contains one article, namely the review authored by the guest editor. Given that the deadline for manuscript submissions expires in a week (31/01/2024), the most probable is that this review will be the only contribution to the special issue… What is the point of special issues, then?

    1. I have noticed that in such cases when there is only one paper in a special issue, MDPI after some time moves the paper to a regular issue and deletes the special issue page altogether.
      The paper then has no indication that it had ever been a part of a special issue.

    2. There is no point. MDPI hijacked what used to be special and made it trivial, colloquial. And while at that, it seduced young scholars to become editors of something so they can add one line to their CVs. Everybody wins, everybody loses.

      1. The flip side of this, is that traditional journals (i.e. subscription-based journals typically hosted by other big publishers) made publishing and editing increasingly difficult. Turn around times can be excruciatingly slow and, more to your point, editorial duties and special issues are rarely conferred to junior scholars or scholars that may not yet be part of established discourse/cliques in a field.

        With MDPI, Frontiers and the like, you can make an argument that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. But addressing this means questionning and changing the publishing ecosystem and culture that allowed these large ‘gold’ OA publishers to thrive.

        Sadly, instead of having this kind of conversation, I often have the impression a part of the research community would just rather bash MDPI and co, and passively watch while the other big publishers simply mimic their approach (Springer’s Discover Series, TF’s Cogent Series, etc.).

  3. Kaushik’s statement “I am a young scholar and working hard to make a good name” seems rather at odds with his web entry “Dr. Kaushik is the recipient of various reputed awards for his services in the research field of nanotechnology, sensing technology, and nanomedicine for efficient health wellness. His excellent research credentials are reflected by his 10 edited books, over 200 international peer-reviewed publications, and three patents in nanomedicine and smart biosensors for personalized health care. Dr. Kaushik has been listed among the top 2% of scientists in the world, as suggested by a study conducted by Stanford.” https://floridapoly.edu/directory/faculty/ajeet-kaushik.php

    1. Dr. Kaushik has an h index of 70, which is unheard of for a “young scholar” at a soso school. So, not only does he have a ton of papers, but they are also being cited a lot. Most recently, he was co-author on a completely unremarkable review on Alzheimer’s disease (Alzheimer’s disease: pathogenesis, diagnostics, and therapeutics, International journal of nanomedicine). This review has received almost 900 references within less than 5 years. How is this possible?

      1. Agreed been watching his career since his fiu days
        He has no grants as far as I can tell
        He is at a non research heavy institution
        yet consistently publishing 50 to 60 journal papers a year
        So every 3 weeks
        I can’t see how this is possible

      2. One of my PhD students told me about 20 days ago that he would like to write a review paper. I asked him if he considered himself to be an authority on a certain field theory. He demurred but insisted that review papers can be easily written using Google, Web of Science, and ChatGPT. Publication of such a paper will be followed by several citations, which will help with his green-card application in the EB1 category. I pointed out to the case of Ajeet Kaushik et al. And suggested that he becomes a regular reader of retractionwatch.com. No review paper, hopefully, from him until he becomes an authority.

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