Research integrity

The Bio-Talent of nanofabrication in Poland

A scientifically subterranean topic at Frontiers leads to a discovery of cheater talents in Poland: a duo of EU-funded nanofabricators from Pakistan. Does any of their papers contain any actual research data, or is it all just made up?

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”.

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Figure 6 from Maqbool et al Frontiers in Pharmacology 2018, repetitive elements visualised with red boxes. Despite panels A and B describing to show different things, the panel B2 is just a  fragment of A1, while A2 hides inside B1. 

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:

Figure 4, Maqbool et al F in Pharmacology 2018. Arrows show peaks and troughs of a spectrum which the authors simply invented. Research data is for losers, at Frontiers.

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.

Originally Figure 8 in Maqbool RSC Advances 2017, where it showed Ag-nanoparticles, it became both CeO2 and CuO nanoparticles in Maqbool et al Frontiers in Pharmacology 2018, by virtue of being Photoshop-adorned like a Christmas tree with those little decorative balls, all identical.

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:

screenshot_2019-01-22 pubpeer - green-synthesised cerium oxide nanostructures (ceo2-ns) show

 

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.

screenshot_2019-01-22 pubpeer - organometallic ag nanostructures prepared using hypericum pe

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:

 

screenshot_2019-01-22 pubpeer - pegylated ofloxacin nanoparticles render strong antibacteria
Marslin et al 2015. Two seemingly different images of different nanoparticles, same magnification. Only they are both parts of same image, one was re-sized

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.

Figure 3A from Sidorowcz et al 2018. Hamburgers, anyone?

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.

presentation1

Carnivora!

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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58 comments on “The Bio-Talent of nanofabrication in Poland

  1. Smut Clyde

    I wrote another blogpost about the ‘Carnivora’ flytrap-juice cancer fraud:
    http://eusa-riddled.blogspot.com/2019/02/nature-attacks-you-and-nature-heals-you.html

    Like

  2. Another fraud by Scam-Master Franklin (corresponding author) and his brother “Gregory Marslin” (as First author with Siram Karthik) have been diagnosed. I am amazed that institute administration have not taken any action against him. Its a shameful situation. see the link below, it’s just updated on PubPeer.

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/E04D6FF5027082B8C2E5BB251CAF49#1

    Like

    • Weissmüller

      Why? Because these papers most likely lack a real PI. When the Franklin/Gregory-case started, I googled his PhD student´s papers: the senior/last authors were impossible to track in many cases, and in other instances they were technicians or undergraduates.

      Like

    • Smut Clyde

      Many of Franklin’s other publications are Review papers. I don’t know if anyone has checked their references for that kind of sloppiness.

      Like

  3. I am really sorry about the embarrassing situation at the IPG in Poznan. You never know with whom you really work.

    That happens when the quantity is respected more than the quality! The post should be read by the Polish Secretary of Science and Higher Education!

    Like

  4. Science Investigate

    Another Scam by Gregory Franklin and Gregory Marsiln appear on pub-peer (see the link below).
    This time they are introducing an antimicrobial cream, it will work? GOD knows!
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/828A724A18E41C127F980191581E85#1

    Like

  5. Weissmüller

    According to his Research Gate profile, QM is still a research fellow in Poland. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Qaisar_Maqbool3

    Like

  6. A retraction of the same authors: Front Pharmacol. 2019; 10: 135.
    Published online 2019 Feb 7. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2019.00135
    PMCID: PMC6375058
    PMID: 30792660
    Retraction: CuO and CeO2 Nanostructures Green Synthesized Using Olive Leaf Extract Inhibits the Growth of Highly Virulent Multidrug Resistant Bacteria
    Frontiers Editorial Office*
    Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer
    This retracts the article “CuO and CeO2 Nanostructures Green Synthesized Using Olive Leaf Extract Inhibits the Growth of Highly Virulent Multidrug Resistant Bacteria” in volume 9, 987.

    The journal retracts the September 2018 article cited above. Following concerns identified post-publication, the article was examined by the Chief Editors, confirming image manipulation in Figure 6, as well as re-use from a previous publication and discrepancies in the data sets presented.
    The Chief Editors therefore concluded that the article warranted retraction. The authors agree to the retraction.

    Question: who manipulated which figures? Sanctions? Consequences? Who is the PI, postdoc, PhD student in this paper?

    Like

  7. Today I received this email from Anna Pendlebury, Publishing Ethics Specialist at Royal Society of Chemistry:

    “I’m writing to you on behalf of the editorial team of RSC Advances about the concerns raised in two articles published in the journal (DOIs: 10.1039/C7RA12082F and 10.1039/C8RA05655B). The Royal Society of Chemistry is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and as such we take very seriously our obligation to investigate publishing ethics concerns that are brought to us and in a fair and impartial manner. We have investigated the concerns raised with both papers in line with COPE guidelines.

    Regarding the 2018 paper (C8RA05655B), the authors and Institute of Plant Genetics of the Polish Academy of Sciences have confirmed that, following reanalysis of the original data files, and repeating of experiments, some of the data in the paper is unreliable and therefore requested to retract the article. We have now published a retraction notice which can be found here.

    Regarding the 2017 paper (C7RA12082F), I can confirm that we are still actively following up the concerns that have been raised and have been in contact with the author and are reviewing the response. We will update you in due course once we have completed our investigation and an outcome has been agreed.”

    Like

    • This is the retraction:
      https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/ra/2019/c9ra90026h#!divAbstract

      ” We, the named authors, wholly retract this RSC Advances article.
      The authors have repeated the FTIR and TGA analyses of the nanoparticles synthesised using H. perforatum, and also obtained the original data files from the facility that carried out the initial analyses. The authors have compared the new results and the original data files with the data in the published article. They found that the graphs presented in Fig. 7a and b in the article did not correspond to neither the original data nor the new analysis. They also found that the same TGA graph (Fig. 7b) was used in previous articles by the first author but representing a different material.1,2
      The Institute of Plant Genetics of the Polish Academy of Sciences have confirmed to the Royal Society of Chemistry that graphs presented in Fig. 7 of this RSC Advances article were manipulated.
      The authors would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to readers.
      Signed: Dariusz Kruszka, Piotr Kachlicki and Gregory Franklin
      Date: 5th April 2019
      Qaisar Maqbool opposes this retraction.
      Retraction endorsed by Andrew Shore, Executive Editor, RSC Advances”

      The other paper has only one author, Maqbool. It seems therefore RSC is unable to pull a paper without his agreement. Very funny!
      http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/c7ra12082f
      https://pubpeer.com/publications/6414B9F6F37D1CA4E4EFAA92710B4D#2

      Like

  8. How many retractions are needed to be dismissed as a PI in Poznan? Where is now the PhD student employed? His Research Gate profile states that he is in the very same institute in Poznan. I guess that Research Gates does not permit ghost affiliations to be shown. So he may be still there in Poznan. Anybody knows?

    Like

  9. Pingback: Magdalena Migocka blames students for impending retractions – For Better Science

  10. And Gregory Franklin continues his postdoc, without much consequences.

    Like

  11. The BioTalent webpage has changed his name from Franklin Gregory to Gregory Franklin.
    http://www.biotalent.eu/index.php/biotalent-team/4-franklin-gregory
    What is actually his family name?

    Like

  12. Pingback: Meaningless and pseudoscientific potatoes – For Better Science

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