Scientists in China pretending to work on cleaning up the environment of industrial pollution and radioactive waste have instead engaged in massive data fabrication, while running a citation cartel. Some of the data was allegedly generated at the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility, yet the spectra were reused, photoshopped and fabricated in different contexts, which makes one wonder if the authors ever actually accessed any synchrotron facilities for their numerous research projects. The central figure here is the 37 year old physicist Yubing Sun. This shooting star of environmental nanotechnology rose to a professorship at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hefei, while boasting over 50 papers and an h-index of 32. It is apparently all built on fraud, and Sun belongs to a bigger gang which polluted science and society with fabricated data and rigged citations, all for own career advancement. As in a similar case, tracks were covered by avoiding shared authorships. Sun and his friends felt safe in inventing and sharing fake data and citing each other excessively, their academic careers flourished, while new generations of young cheaters are being trained by Professor Sun and his colleagues.
The following is a guest post by Smut Clyde, presenting his and TigerBB8‘s joint investigation into the Sun et al affair, spanning 22 papers from 2012 till 2018 in respectable journals of ACS and RSC.
The Subtleties a Spectrograph Would Miss, by Smut Clyde
The Brocken Spectre is a phenomenon seen from a mountain peak, looking down on clouds or fog with the sun behind one. “Brokenspectra” is a term I made up just now for unnatural wavelength functions – X-ray or IR or Raman spectra (and including X-ray diffraction patterns as honorary members of the club) – stitched together from spare parts, preferably in a laboratory in a Carpathian castle while angry peasants gather at the gates with pitchforks and torches.
Here is one to whet your appetite. I think it is some kind of mutant bar-code containing a hidden message.
And another. It is remarkably similar to my EKG after the second double-shot espresso of the morning.
Leonid’s readers will be disappointed by the absence of manipulated protein Western Blots from today’s post [Please donate below to lodge a formal complaint. -LS]. Instead there are electron-microscopy images of a protean nature, shifting their identities on every appearance; and Brokenspectra, including the first sightings from the high-end extreme of EXAFS (Extended X-Ray Absorption Fine Structure), which may serve as some consolation. Also versatile scholars in the Renaissance mould of Aldrovandi or Athanasius Kircher, breaking out from the narrow confines of their nominal specialty to publish in physical chemistry; and there are unusual patterns of citation. The central characters are Yubing Sun , a prolific and well-funded researcher at Hefei Institute of Physical Sciences (Institute of Plasma Physics) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and North China Electrical Power University (NCEPU); and his frequent co-author, Xiangke Wang – Sun’s boss at NCEPU. But we should begin at the end: with…
 Min Pan , Guangxue Wu , Chang Liu , Xinxin Lin , Xiaoming Huang
Enhanced Adsorption of Zn(II) onto Graphene Oxides Investigated Using Batch and Modeling Techniques
MDPI Nanomaterials (2018) doi: 10.3390/nano8100806
This excursion into advanced materials science is atypical for the lead author Min Pan, of Xiamen University of Technology, whose career centres on the treatment of sewage and slaughterhouse wastewater. The paper raises some concerns, as featured in a PubPeer thread. In particular, Figure 1 sets out to characterise the Graphene Oxide (GO) in various ways. But stuttering in the XRD contained in panel 1(E) hints at some heinous malfunction in the diffraction equipment. Figure 1(B) is a TEM (Transmission Electron Microscope) image of the experimental GO, but a section of it had previously been enlarged and slightly rotated [at right] to illustrate GO3, in:
. Yubing Sun , Shubin Yang , Congcong Ding , Zhongxiu Jin , Wencai Cheng
Tuning the chemistry of graphene oxides by a sonochemical approach: application of adsorption properties
RSC Advances (2015) doi: 10.1039/c5ra02021b
You will have noticed the two papers share overlapping research data but no overlapping authors. But there is a clue: last author of  Huang and first author of  Sun studied for a MSc degree at the School of Resources and Environmental Engineering at Hefei University of Technology at around same time, 2006-2009 and 2004-2007, respectively. Sun moved on doing a PhD, Huang lacking such a degree is employed as “technician” at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering in Xiamen, since 2018 as “senior technician”. His humble first author Pan on the other hand, has a PhD degree and is employed as lecturer on associate professor track. A peculiar academic relationship between Mr Huang and Dr Pan.
The SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) image of the experimental GO had previously illustrated “HOOC-GOs” when it appeared in Fig 1(B) [right] of :
 Yubing Sun , Shubin Yang , Yue Chen , Congcong Ding , Wencai Cheng , Xiangke Wang
Adsorption and desorption of U(VI) on functionalized graphene oxides: a combined experimental and theoretical study
Environmental Science & Technology (2015) doi: 10.1021/es505590j
In fact Fig 1 of  has undergone some remarkable migrations. For convenient referral I show it above. As noted, Panel 1(B) is a SEM of “HOOC-GOs“. Except when it illustrates “sulfonated graphene oxide” (GO-OSO3H):
Note that one image is not simply an enlarged detail of the other: they overlap, each with its own unique segment, suggesting that two sets of authors cut down a single larger Ur-version, in different ways. Note also that this is now a different paper: we have set Min Pan’s oeuvre aside for the moment, and turned to Ting Yao, of the Air Force Logistics College in Xuzhou. Yao has published on aspects of aviation oil and remediation of contaminated environments. But at some point she gained access to a supply of rare-earth elements and wrote:
 Ting Yao , Yunpeng Xiao , Xiaowen Wu , Changying Guo , Yuanli Zhao , Xi Chen
Adsorption of Eu(III) on sulfonated graphene oxide: Combined macroscopic and modeling techniques
Journal of Molecular Liquids (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.molliq.2015.11.030
Figure 1 of  characterises the GO-OSO3H in several ways, including an XPS spectrum [1D, right] which is indebted to the carboxylated GO of .
Don’t fear that the other panels of Figure 1 from  have been neglected. Panel 1(C) is postponed until . As for 1(A), we find it illustrating an application of GO, in Figure 1 of paper  from Min Pan:
 Xiaoming Huang , Min Pan
The highly efficient adsorption of Pb(II) on graphene oxides: A process combined by batch experiments and modeling techniques
Journal of Molecular Liquids (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.molliq.2015.12.061
But we have not finished with Ting Yao’s work. At left below is Figure 1 B, a FTIR spectrum characterising B subtilis, from
 Ting Yao, Xiaowen Wu, Xi Chen, Yunpeng Xiao, Yongguo Zhang, Yuanli Zhao, Fengbo Li
Biosorption of Eu(III) and U(VI) on Bacillus subtilis : Macroscopic and modeling investigation
Journal of Molecular Liquids (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.molliq.2016.01.101
It is shared at right, in common with the lower FTIR spectrum of Fig 1D in :
 Yubing Sun , Rui Zhang , Congcong Ding , Xiangxue Wang , Wencai Cheng , Changlun Chen , Xiangke Wang
Adsorption of U(VI) on sericite in the presence of Bacillus subtilis: A combined batch, EXAFS and modeling techniques
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.gca.2016.02.012
Now the final and corresponding author of  was Fengbo Li, a new arrival in the dramatis personae. His scholarly endeavours at Huangshan University have focused on applications of a soil fungus, Paecilomyces catenlannulatus – in particular, its potential for sequestering and bioabsorbing heavy metals. There is a recurring theme here, of dealing with environmental contaminants of the breathtakingly-toxic and sometimes radioactive variety, reflecting the downside of China’s industrial transformation. Anyway, Li serves as a link to a third cluster of researchers with their own pair of papers.
 Fengbo Li , Xiaoyu Li , Pu Cui
Adsorption of U(VI) on magnetic iron oxide/ Paecilomyces catenlannulatus composites
Journal of Molecular Liquids (2018) doi: 10.1016/j.molliq.2017.12.136
Figure 1 is what catches the eye, for the “MIO/B composites” shown there are reminiscent of the “carbon nanofibers” depicted in another Figure 1 from a different paper:
 Yubing Sun , Zhen-Yu Wu , Xiangxue Wang , Congcong Ding , Wencai Cheng , Shu-Hong Yu , Xiangke Wang
Macroscopic and Microscopic Investigation of U(VI) and Eu(III) Adsorption on Carbonaceous Nanofibers
Environmental Science & Technology (2016) doi: 10.1021/acs.est.6b00058
Progressing quickly to a second paper from these authors, its Fig. 1(A) (a FT-IR spectrum for P. catenlannulatus) reveals an unusual repeated feature, rather resembling a front view of a sofa. Somehow it is turning into an airliner seating diagram.
 Fengbo Li , Xiaoyu Li , Pu Cui
Detoxification of U(VI) by Paecilomyces catenlannulatus investigated by batch, XANES and EXAFS techniques
Journal of Environmental Radioactivity (2018) doi: 10.1016/j.jenvrad.2018.03.005
The paper also provides a useful segue to EXAFS. To repeat, this is high-end materials science. I would expose the shallowness of my understanding if I tried to explain EXAFS. The crux, though is that at high enough resolution, the fine structure of an X-ray absorption line contains clues to the crystalline neighbourhood of the atoms absorbing those X-rays (because the probability that a photon will dislodge an electron is modulated by the energy-dependent interference between that dislodged electron, as a wave, and neighbouring atoms / bonds). A computation-heavy weighted Fourier transform from the frequency into the spatial domain makes these clues explicit. The only source of sufficiently pure monochromatic X-rays is a synchrotron beam-line, and these are not desktop laboratory devices (though there is one in Shanghai). So not many people are active in the field. Evidently Fengbo Li qualified for access to the Shanghai installation (as well as access to radionuclides), resulting in Figure 6(B) [left], where the bottom profile is an EXAFS spectrum for “U-loaded P. catenlannulatus incubation time = 7 days, pH 4.5, CU(VI) = 20 mg/L.”
Unexpectedly, all three spectra are replotted from counterparts in Fig. 7(B) [right], from
 Yubing Sun , Congcong Ding , Wencai Cheng , Xiangke Wang
Simultaneous adsorption and reduction of U(VI) on reduced graphene oxide-supported nanoscale zerovalent iron
Journal of Hazardous Materials (2014) doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2014.08.023
To sum up: we have three small clusters of researchers located around China, repurposing images and results from the large, productive Sun / Wang group. In comments in PubPeer, Sun and Wang have expressed dismay at these acts of intellectual piracy, while preferring not to speculate about exactly how the other groups obtained the Ur-versions. Those clusters are not entirely disjunct: Fengbo Li of the third group was corresponding author on Yao’s paper . Li has also collaborated with Sun, most recently in 2018 (see  below). I should note that much of the pirated material was published in the Journal of Molecular Liquids, which benefits from Xiangke Wang‘s presence on its Editorial Board; it is a pity that papers , , ,  did not cross his desk and alert him to these misdeeds. Perhaps in compensation, there are some unusual patterns of citation (as promised above). In , 26 out of 44 references invoke the work of Y. B. Sun. In . 15 out of 44. I am not convinced that they all crucially relevant.
Citations, of course, have become the currency of the academic-publishing economy. Like viewers’ votes in a Reality-TV show, they drive the Impact Factors of journals, and of individual papers, and of course the h-index of individual scientists. Summed across papers, they define the importance and determine the career paths of the authors, removing the need for science administrators to understand anything of what people might have contributed before promoting them or bestowing tenure. Roles on Peer-Reviewer panels and Editorial Boards are determined by citations in all their majestic objectivity. 27 out of 51 references in  invoke Y. B Sun. In , 27 of 47. This might strike some as immoderate.
This creates an incentive for authors to pack self-citations into every niche of their own References sections, or as peer-reviewers, to render judgement that a manuscript is unpublishable until it contains 12 citations of one’s own work; though these are generally deprecated. Citation cartels at the level of journals – mutually-beneficial exchanges of backrolling and logscratching between editors – are derogated in the same way. In , 23 of 38 citations. In , 20 of 56 citations. Here  is the Li / Sun collaboration foreshadowed above:
 Fengbo Li , Xiaoyu Li , Pu Cui , Yubing Sun
Plasma-grafted amidoxime/metal–organic framework composites for the selective sequestration of U(vi)
Environmental Science: Nano (2018) doi: 10.1039/c8en00583d
Now  commends itself to our attention partly for Figure 1(B), a FT-IR spectrum for an amidoxime/metalorganic framework composite or AO/MOF, containing odd segments of self-similarity.
Those features were already present when the spectrum was published a year earlier – vertically compressed – as the upper, red profile in Figure 1(C) of :
 Yubing Sun, Songhua Lu, Xiangxue Wang, Chao Xu, Jiaxing Li, Changlun Chen, Jing Chen, Tasawar Hayat, Ahmed Alsaedi, Njud S. Alharbi, Xiangke Wang
Plasma-Facilitated Synthesis of Amidoxime/Carbon Nanofiber Hybrids for Effective Enrichment of 238U(VI) and 241Am(III)
Environmental Science & Technology (2017) doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b02745
Indeed, the two papers shared any number of results, despite the difference between AO/MOFs and “Amidoxime/Carbon Nanofiber Hybrids”. Xiangke Wang was dismayed by the theft but we have yet to hear from Sun, the author in common.
EXAFS results were shared.
In fact these spectra make a third appearance! They are also Figure 5 [at left] of 
 Tian Wan , Wen Cheng , Jiehui Ren , Wei Wu , Min Wang , Baowei Hu , Ziyi Jia , Yubing Sun
The influence of nanoscale size on the adsorption–desorption of U(vi) on nano-Al oxides
Environmental Science: Nano (2018) doi: 10.1039/c8en00912k
In that third home, two of the spectra donned new identities as uranium-sequestering nano-alumina and nano-corundum. The uppermost spectrum (U(vi) in isolation) is unchanged for R(Å) 2.2 it is flat. The absence of a third peak piqued the curiosity of an EXAFS expert in a Pubpeer comment but the best explanation is that the output was edited. There is just time to admire two Brokenspectrum from  before continuing: To the right, some experimental hiccoughs have perturbed Figure 5(A), showing XPS analyses for the two aluminium oxides.We are now within Sun’s canon but there is no space to be exhaustive (readers are invited to explore the relevant PubPeerthreads). I shall quickly select a few representative Brokenspectra.
 Congcong Ding , Wencai Cheng , Yubing Sun , Xiangke Wang
Determination of chemical affinity of graphene oxide nanosheets with radionuclides investigated by macroscopic, spectroscopic and modeling techniques
Dalton Transactions (2014) doi: 10.1039/c3dt52881b
 Yubing Sun , Changlun Chen , Dadong Shao , Jiaxing Li , Xiaoli Tan , Guixia Zhao , Shubin Yang , Xiangke Wang
Enhanced adsorption of ionizable aromatic compounds on humic acid-coated carbonaceous adsorbents
RSC Advances (2012) doi: 10.1039/c2ra21713a
 Yubing Sun, Dadong Shao, Changlun Chen, Shubin Yang, Xiangke Wang
Highly efficient enrichment of radionuclides on graphene oxide-supported polyaniline
Environmental Science & Technology (2013) doi: 10.1021/es401174n
 Yubing Sun, Xiangxue Wang, Wencheng Song, Songhua Lu, Changlun Chen, Xiangke Wang
Mechanistic insights into the decontamination of Th(iv) on graphene oxide-based composites by EXAFS and modeling techniques
Environmental Science: Nano (2017) doi: 10.1039/c6en00470a
The upper one on the left is really the Prague skyline (right). I really want to concentrate on the EXAFS analyses, for they are the point of difference for this group. So it was natural to take seven raw-data and transformed spectra for functionalized GO, in Figure 4 of  [below, left], and compare them against the transformed spectra [right] for “uranium-containing nZVI/C composites” at different pH / time combinations, from . Mirabile dictu, four of them are the same!
 Haibo Liu , Mengxue Li , Tianhu Chen , Changlun Chen , Njud S. Alharbi , Tasawar Hayat , Dong Chen , Qiang Zhang , Yubing Sun
New Synthesis of nZVI/C Composites as an Efficient Adsorbent for the Uptake of U(VI) from Aqueous Solutions
Environmental Science & Technology (2017) doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b02431
The similarity is not complete, for when the 2015 “rGOs_U/pH8” profile was repurposed to be “U(VI)O22+ in 2017, it was edited to be flat for R(Å) &rt; 2.5.
As always, there is more, and I am compelled as if by a gaes to take those seven spectra from  and compare them again… four of them also appeared as Fig. 4 in , this time representing sonochemically-tuned Uranium-sponge GO variants.
More curious still, although the raw data are the same, the Fourier-transformed versions of these EXAFS spectra do not match. There are only two main humps instead of three, which is like recalculating a camel and ending up with a horse. How does this happen?Now that we are back on the subject of , with the functionalized GOs, it may be time to wonder why the FT-IR spectra for GOs and rGOs are identical, down to pixels of noise, except for a 10% horizontal stretch.
Readers might be worried about Panel 1(C) from  – a crumpled paperbag of a reduced-GO sheet, seen via SEM. Don’t worry, it has not been neglected, and was transformed back into GO [here at right] to become Figure 1(A) of .
 Xiangxue Wang , Qiaohui Fan , Shujun Yu , Zhongshan Chen , Yuejie Ai , Yubing Sun , Aatef Hobiny , Ahmed Alsaedi , Xiangke Wang
High sorption of U(VI) on graphene oxides studied by batch experimental and theoretical calculations
Chemical Engineering Journal (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.cej.2015.11.066
And going back to the Graphene Oxide SEM of  Fig 1(A), there are two other reported sightings. One was in Supplementary Figure S1A of , which again described the subject matter as GO, so the main concern is that a different microscope had reportedly created the image.
 Wencai Cheng, Congcong Ding, Qunyan Wu, Xiangxue Wang, Yubing Sun, Weiqun Shi, Tasawar Hayat, Ahmed Alsaedi, Zhifang Chai, Xiangke Wang
Mutual effect of U(vi) and Sr(ii) on graphene oxides: evidence from EXAFS and theoretical calculations
Environmental Science: Nano (2017) doi: 10.1039/c7en00114b
The second was in Fig. 1D [right] of , where in the manner of a master-criminal from sensationalist fiction, the material had changed its identity, and was calling itself a “mesoporous Al2O3/EG composite”.
 Yubing Sun, Changlun Chen, Xiaoli Tan, Dadong Shao, Jiaxing Li, Guixia Zhao, Shubin Yang, Qi Wang, Xiangke Wang
Enhanced adsorption of Eu(III) on mesoporous Al2O3/expanded graphite composites investigated by macroscopic and microscopic techniques
Dalton Transactions (2012) doi: 10.1039/c2dt31510f
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
What is one to make of all this? Sun and Wang have reached the pinnacle of Physical Chemistry success, and ascended into the High-Citation empyrean (assisted by a certain degree of self-citation). When you have gained access to (1) exotic materials, and (2) a synchrotron X-ray beamline, with (3) software and (4) grad students to write the manuscripts, then a stream of publishable papers is guaranteed (along with the funding to ensure that (1)-(4) continue). There should be no need to manipulate spectra, and duplicate results, and extract different, incompatible spectra from single sets of data. In particular, there should be no need for groups of outsiders to this niche of materials science, embellishing their academic records with papers consisting of images from Sun & Wang, text in the style of Sun & Wang, and citations to Sun & Wang. One’s papers (and the broader plot arcs they build) should already be attracting citations from other researchers in the field. Assuming, of course, that other researchers in the field can replicate one’s results and calculations. [Thanks TigerBB8 for contributions]
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!