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A single ‘paper mill’ appears to have churned out 400 papers, sleuths find

Online sleuths have discovered what they suspect is a paper mill that has produced more than 400 scientific papers with potentially fabricated images. Some journals are now investigating the papers.

Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist–turned–research integrity expert based in San Francisco, along with other “forensic detectives,” identified the potentially problematic papers, which they think came from a single source. They say the papers contain western blot images—used in molecular biology to visualize the presence of proteins—that contain remarkably similar background patterns and unusually neat bands lacking smears, stains, or dots, which often appear in such images.

“We think that these western blots are not real,” says Bik, who wrote about the case on her blog on 21 February. “Most of them have a very similar layout so we realized these are all coming from the same stable.”

The papers in question have no common authors, Bik says. The papers also vary in disciplines, including pediatrics, cardiology, endocrinology, nephrology, and vascular surgery.

One common factor, however, is that authors of these papers all seem to be based at hospitals in China, Bik notes. The Jining First People’s Hospital tops the list with 101 papers listing it as an affiliation. It is followed by the Jilin University China‐Japan Union Hospital and the Affiliated Hospital of Qingdao University with 59 and 23 papers, respectively.

Bik’s hunch is that the studies were published as a tick-box exercise by physicians who have to publish papers in international journals in order to be eligible for promotions.

“The main reason behind such cases is that too much emphasis has been placed on international publications in performance evaluation and promotion [in China], not taking into consideration that there should be differences between a scientist and a physician,” says Cong Cao, a professor of social studies of science, technology, and innovation at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo.

Last week, China’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology jointly released new guidelines on research evaluation that appear to recommend moving away from an emphasis in evaluations on papers published in international journals, and those indexed in the database Science Citation Index, which is often used to judge academic performance. But Cao thinks the move is unwise and goes to the other extreme. “Chinese universities may have to scramble to come up with new implementation measures to adapt [to the] government’s policy changes, which are vague and not operational.”

Gregg Fields, a biochemist at Florida Atlantic University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cellular Physiology, which published 21 of the papers under scrutiny, says the journal’s publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, is looking into the issue. Meanwhile, Fields says he and his team are doing their best to “keep these papermill manuscripts out of the journal going forwards.” This, he says, “may require the adaptation of software to categorize common gel images utilized in the papermill manuscripts.”

Florian Lang, a physiologist at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen who edits Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry, which published 26 of the papers in question, says he found out about the problem about 3 weeks ago and is now in the process of approaching the authors. He notes that if the images are found to be fabricated, he will request that the journal’s publisher, Karger Publishers, retract the papers.