In 2014, Institute of Plant Genetics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznan received a Horizon 2020 grant from the European Union, in value of €2 million. The project Bio-Talent is designed to set-up a new Department of Integrative Plant Biology, one of the three key scientists involved is a certain Gregory Franklin, and his highly productive publication output will make a large share of Bio-Talent’s final report to the EU, when the grant ends in June 2019. There is just one snag: the Franklin nanotechnology lab produces fabricated data, made up in Photoshop or from creative reuse of unrelated published material. Another recurrent name is Franklin’s newly arrived PhD student and member of EU-funded Bio-Talent team, Qaisar Maqbool. He even has his own stand-alone papers consisting of fabricated data. Some Bio-Talent it sure is, but is it really what EU wanted to be funding in Poland?All this was analysed and posted on PubPeer by a reader of my site, and the case started with a recent Frontiers paper from Pakistan, where the topic editor Franklin somehow apparently appointed himself as last and corresponding author: Maqbool et al, Frontiers in Pharmacology 2018. The paper is a classic green nanotechnology compost heap slurry: you make some boring metal nanoparticles, but with herbal favour, usually using a plant of complementary medicine “value”, and declare those “green” nanoparticle to efficient killers of cancer cells or multi-drug-resistant bacteria. What Maqbool and his colleagues back in Lahore, Pakistan, claim to have discovered was that CuO and CeO2 nanoparticles flavoured with leaves from olive tree (I guess they tried to peddle to the Mediterranean market) kill bacteria and are absolutely non-toxic to eukaryotes.
The road to get the desired results with such green nanotechnology is usually sloppy science, like accidentally not using same dosages of toxic metal nanoparticles in controls versus herbal setups in vitro or even in vivo (most journals never ask for animal research ethics permits), and if everything else fails: data manipulation in silico. This is apparently what the Poznan authors had to resort to. Electron microscopy images of nanoparticles were generated in Photoshop, with bits and pieces cloned and reused. Same groups of nanoparticles appear several times in the same image, as the PubPeer commenter said:
“A1 is festooned with little repeating elements akin to a dog’s bollocks. It appears to be a digital composition”.
Franklin’s contribution to this masterpiece was two-fold: he “provided his expert opinion and technical expertise related to the accomplishment of biomedical application part“, being Maqbool’s new boss and Frontiers topic editor who invited that masterpiece. Which brought Franklin the practical last authorship, to complement his Bio-Talent report to EU Commission, who then paid the article processing charge of $2950 for a fraudulent paper from Pakistan. Everyone is happy: young Mr Maqbool, his new master Dr Gregory, Frontiers, their academic employer in Poznan, the EU Commission and so should you be. This is namely the top peer-reviewed science you get:
Apparently Frontiers “rigorous peer review” decided that yes, one can invent peaks and troughs of a spectrum without any support from actual data points. This is what the authors did, for the spectrum of CeO2-olive-leaf-flavoured nanoparticles. This kind of data fabrication is in plain sight for editors and peer reviewers, there are absolutely no excuses to have missed that.
If you think at least the CuO spectrum might be trustworthy: it is not. That one, just like the HPLC chromatogram from Figure 2 or the X-Ray diffraction (XRD) analysis from Figure 5, were dug up from older Maqbool papers, Maqbool RSC Advances 2017, and Maqbool et al IET 2017.
Not just the spectra, diffraction and chromatography analyses, also electron microscopy images in that Maqbool-Franklin Frontiers co-production were reused from older material: Anwaar et al Frontiers in Plant Science 2016 (that one might lack Franklin as author, yet it was edited by his colleague in Poznan), and the solo masterpiece, to qualify as Franklin’s PhD student, Maqbool RSC Advances 2017. In the Anwaar paper in Frontiers, the images used to stand in for nanoparticles designed to help rice grow, for which they had to be prepared using neem leaf extract (Azadirachta indica), because neem in Bengal area is traditionally eaten with rice, so it makes perfect sense.
The strange Maqbool RSC Advances 2017, authored solely by the young student Mr Maqbool, about to begin his PhD under the great Franklin, is full of surprises itself. Look at this thermogravimetry analysis (TGA) in Figure 4:
It is peculiar how similar those curves are. If one overlays them, only a tiny wiggly bit at the “O2 decomposition” point is different, which must be a clever optical psychological trick to confuse the reader. And it gets better. One can also overlay these two with two more curves, for organometallic (OM)-Ag nanoparticles from Fig 7 of Maqbool et al RSC Advances 2018 (last author is Franklin), and for CeO2 nanoparticles from Maqbool et al IJN 2016, Fig 9. They all fit neatly on top of each other, because they are obviously the same measurement.
One can only guess where the original curve comes from, and what it originally showed, and who might its original author be. For sure we now understand the secret to Mr Maqbool’s and Dr Franklin’s amazing productivity. The Maqbool et al RSC Advances 2018 paper has another recycled graph inside Figure 7, where the spectrum for St John’s-wort extract (mind your medicinal herbarium!) miraculously proves exactly identical to that of organometallic silver nanoparticles, just a bit shifted and squeezed.
Of course also that fake compost dump of a research paper claims to kill drug-resistant bacteria with nanoparticles, this time St John’s-wort flavoured (to cater to northern Europeans, presumably). There is hope: the Editor in Chief of RSC Advances, Russell Cox, promised action on those two Maqbool papers:
“I will forward these points to our editorial office with a request that the papers in question are examined as quickly as possible. For your information I am an expert in the chemistry of fungi, and have little expertise in materials chemistry. RSC advances publishes thousands (literally) of papers each year and it is almost impossible for us to screen every image during the review process. We thus rely on the broader chemistry community to point out potential failure of ethical behaviour in authors, and I thank you for your vigilance in this matter. We have an established procedure for dealing with cases of possible fabrication and duplication which we will follow in this case”.
One should not assume Franklin always needed Maqbool to produce such original pseudoscience. In this regard, see the works of Franklin as last author from his earlier stint in Portugal, like Marslin et al Colloids & Surfaces B, 2015. There is a very interesting image duplication in it:
The paper Marslin et al Planta Medica 2016 also has an image duplication which is unlikely to have happened by oversight. On the other hand, the paper Maqbool et al Int J Nanomed 2016 misses Franklin, but has same kind of duplicated and re-sized image, yet size bar remained same. What a nightmare team those two make.
Almost all those analyses were made and posted on PubPeer by a certain reader of my site, who pretends to be a waxy plant, Hoya camphorifolia. Let us hope Franklin and Maqbool won’t turn poor Hoya into some medicinal nanoparticles next, for revenge, and publish it in Frontiers, paid with EU grant money.
Another reader of my site wrote to me to point out that a recent preprint by Maqbool and Franklin also contains fake data, Sidorowicz et al MDPI Preprints 2018. It is also about St John’s-wort. The electron microscopy image was made by copy-paste in Photoshop. For all we know, those St John’s-wort flavoured silver nanoparticles might be a cloned picture of a hamburger.
Once again, the authors invented some peaks. This time at least, one cannot blame any peer reviewers for approving that, this is still a preprint.
The initially discussed Frontiers in Pharmacology paper Maqbool et al 2018 was part of a research topic “Nanoformulations containing Phytochemicals/ Herbal extracts“, organised in the section “Ethnopharmacology” by Franklin and two friends. What other amazing works did it provide the scientific community with, before the submission closed? A mini-review, and a paper from Gdansk, Poland: Krychowiak et al 2018, that’s it. This “original research” paper, where silver nanoparticles were flavoured with extracts from carnivorous plants of sundew family, has an interesting backstory. For one, the co-author Anna Kawiak from the University of Gdansk had to retract her study Kawiak & Domachowaska PLOS One 2016 , because it was too fraudulently photoshopped. That paper claimed to have established anti-cancer properties of carnivorous plant extracts, there is another one on same topic in same journal, Kawiak & Lojkowska 2016 which PLOS chose to do nothing about, despite horrendous data manipulations found there. Here is just one example, the duplicated background of western blot image suggests that a gel band was digitally superimposed:
You might wonder why would someone so desperately want to prove that sundew can cure cancer as to resort to outright data fakery. Sure, nanoparticles flavoured with medicinal plants, nanotechnology meets Ayurveda, that is cool and fashionable, but extracts from carnivorous plants to cure cancer? How does one arrive to that conclusion? My regular contributor Smut Clyde blogged about that topic some years ago:
“Despite a name that is redolent of the homeopathic pharmacopeia, it turns out that “Carnivora” is not a highly-diluted preparation of big cats, rabid mustelids, pinnipeds and hyaenas,* to be taken as a counter-agent to the effects of partial consumption by tigers”
We learn that this school of silly thought is called “Carnivora”, first postulated by some German nutcases in the 1980ies. Soon, more nutcases in Germany and other countries including Poland joined the craze, because if a carnivorous plant like sundew or Venus flytrap can digest a fly, it perfectly stands to reason that it would also dissolve cancer. Please don’t shake your head incredulously now, for this theory has been approved and peer reviewed by none other that Frontiers! Marc Diederich and his colleagues in Luxembourg proved in the Gaascht et al Frontiers in Oncology 2013 that yes, Venus flytrap extract is bound to cure cancer. It is just an opinion piece moonlighting as a literature review, but who needs reliable research data to postulate fringe discoveries, that being Frontiers?
It makes perfect sense that that Frontiers topic contains just these two complimentary “research” papers on green nanotechnology: Franklin & Maqbool copy-paste orgy of fake data, and Kawiak’s potentiation of Carnivora quackery with nanoparticles. At least the chief editor of the Ethnopharmacology section at Frontiers in Pharmacology, Michael Heinrich, promised to take care of the Franklin case. He wrote to me:
“Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I have contacted the Research Integrity Department of Frontiers and they will investigate immediately. This will take a few weeks and we will get back to you afterwards. I cannot comment without further data, but want to draw your attention to our ‘Four Pillars of Best Practice’ which we also use to evaluate MSs (and as a key guide to authors) specifically in the area of ethnopharmacology: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/pharmacology/sections/ethnopharmacology#about). Here we define in detail what constitutes best practice for manuscripts submitted to Frontiers in Pharmacology; Section Ethnopharmacology. They build on the general requirements of Frontiers in Pharmacology”.
Under the provided link we learn:
“Research must be certified by peers before entering a stream of knowledge that may eventually reach the public – and shape society. Therefore, Frontiers only applies the most rigorous and unbiased reviews, established in the high standards of the Frontiers Review System. Furthermore, only the top certified research, evaluated objectively through quantitative online article level metrics, is disseminated…”
That is reassuring. Kawiak’s Carnivora and Franklin’s fake data, even his blatantly made-up data-free peaks all passed the highest quality control in the world of science, the Frontiers peer review.
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