University of Sydney dean working to amend review papers that cited papermill articles

Marcel Dinger

The dean of science at the University of Sydney is reassessing a series of review papers after commenters on PubPeer pointed out each cited several retracted articles, Retraction Watch has learned.

Marcel Dinger and his coauthors will submit addendums to the journals noting the retracted references, he told Retraction Watch, and work with editors to determine whether the reviews should be retracted. 

Dinger, who also is a professor of genome biology, is a middle author of four review articles and last author on one more that sleuths using the Problematic Paper Screener flagged as referencing retracted articles. The articles have been cited nearly 100 times altogether, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. 

Guillaume Cabanac, who developed the screener, commented on one of the papers in August 2022

Readers should reassess the reliability of this paper as its bibliography includes several questioned references that are likely to be unreliable. 

In comments on PubPeer earlier this month, Alexander Magazinov wrote that four more articles included “a number of references of questionable reliability,” and listed the retracted references. 

Responding to Cabanac, one of the authors, Mohammad Taheri of the Institute of Human Genetics at Jena University Hospital in Germany, who has many more papers flagged on PubPeer, wrote

The retracted papers cited by us were retracted one or two years after our publication, not before. When writing a review paper, it is not feasible to evaluate all 200 original papers that you intend to cite.

(Helping scientists with this problem was one of the reasons we created the Retraction Watch Database, now part of Crossref: Researchers using Zotero, Endnote and other software can automate checking their references for retracted articles.)

Dinger told us he and his coauthors had cited the problematic papermill articles unwittingly, and have begun assessing the damage to their work: 

Most of these comments relate to a series of review papers – they were part of a cataloguing effort of noncoding RNAs in various disease contexts – the underlying work in these literature curation efforts had been intended to inform an update to the long noncoding RNA database (a project I led a number of years ago, but has since fallen out of date – (see Quek et al, Nucleic Acids Research, 2015).

In an effort to be comprehensive, we erred on the side of inclusivity in terms of the literature cited in each of the specific disease contexts. What we were unaware of at the time was that this coincided with the emergence of the so-called “Chinese papermills”, which ended up contaminating the peer-reviewed literature with 1000s (or even 10,000s or 100,000s) papers that were in essence completely fraudulent. Regrettably, a number of these papers were cited in some of the review articles.

I am in contact with the co-authors of the affected papers at the moment and we are now undertaking a review of the papers to assess the impact of these citations to now-retracted publications (I should note the publications were not retracted at the time the papers were published). We will then put together addendums to the journals to highlight those publications that were cited that are retracted. We will also assess the overall impact to the content/commentary/conclusions in the papers. If the impact is potentially significant, we will work with the respective editors to determine if the entire paper should be retracted also.

The five flagged articles are: 

Regarding another post on PubPeer questioning the ethics approval of a research paper, “HLA alleles and haplotype frequencies in Iranian population,” Dinger said his co-authors have the correct approvals for the work. He has asked them to respond on PubPeer “to clear the record on this matter.”

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14 thoughts on “University of Sydney dean working to amend review papers that cited papermill articles”

  1. > When writing a review paper, it is not feasible to evaluate
    > all 200 original papers that you intend to cite.

    I am not sure about that one, honestly. What is the point of a review if not to provide an evaluation on a topic / question of interest ? It’s no surprise there is at least one review published every week for my research topic if the authors do not even bother reading the papers underlying their “reviews”.

  2. So every paper that cites a subsequently retracted paper will itself have to be updated or retracted? Then papers that have cited the latter will in turn have to be updated or retracted? Where does the cycle end?

    1. This isn’t about a single retracted paper being cited, but for the four examples of papers given above it is 5, 13, 9 and 10, respectively.

      1. …all of which were apparently only retracted after the review was published. Is an author supposed to be clairvoyant? Or are you arguing that they should be more discerning in the first place? What about systematic reviews and meta-analysis, where the goal is to cast as wide of net as possible? Or where, as apparently was the case of this review (I haven’t read it), the goal is simply to provide a compilation/catalog of studies that have measured a certain thing?

        1. “What about systematic reviews and meta-analysis?” >>> Best is to admit that these genres are unsuitable for fraud-infested fields and avoid them altogether. The garbage-in-garbage-out principle is hard to defeat. Unless the goal is yet another CV-filler, that is.
          A side note: there are perhaps already too many “what ifs”. What if these were systematic reviews / meta-analyses? – no, they were not. What if all the retractions occurred after publication? – no, some did before.

        2. It doesn’t matter that they were only retracted afterwards. There are so many retracted that it casts serious doubt on the validity of anything written in the review. It is also in a field where the authors should indeed have been more discerning, as it has been pointed out as a prime example of a field where paper mills have been very active for quite some years already.

  3. ´When writing a review paper, it is not feasible to evaluate all 200 original papers that you intend to cite.’

    Is this not the point of a review paper?

    1. No, it typically aims at providing an overview of the basic results of all those papers in one coherent story. Doing an independent full peer review of each paper that one (or even one’s coauthor) cites, including those relying on methodologies with which you’re not acquainted, would simply take years. That’s the point of using expert peer reviewers in the first place (and even those often mention those parts for which they lack the necessary background). I fully agree that one should be wary of which citations one uses these days, but the world isn’t perfect and these things will always happen. Fixing the problem, as is being done here, looks like the best way forward. Therefore, I think including this researcher in the “wall of shame” among fraudulent other researchers is overly harsh.

      1. “providing an overview of the basic results of all those papers in one coherent story.”

        A sufficiently advanced researcher knows the basic results of the papers without even needing to read them.

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