Academic Publishing Research integrity

Elsevier’s research integrity

A Chinese paper gets rejected at Elsevier after reviewer spotted fraud. Same paper re-appears unchanged in another Elsevier journal, the editors refuse any action.

On 10 February 2020, one US-based biochemist wrote to the Yifeng Zhang, editorial board member at the Elsevier journal Science of the Total Environment. The reason was a paper Zhang handled, from the Chongqing institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences:

Chong-Yang Xing , Yu-Chen Fan , Xuan Chen , Jin-Song Guo , Yu Shen , Peng Yan , Fang Fang , You-Peng Chen A self-assembled nanocompartment in anammox bacteria for resisting intracelluar hydroxylamine stress The Science of The Total Environment (2020) doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.137030

These were the reader’s concerns:

Dear Dr. Zhang,
I am writing to flag an in-proof paper in Science of The Total Environment as fraudulent!
The paper in question is: [Xing et al 2020].

I reviewed this paper earlier at the Journal of Structural Biology and flagged it as fraud too.
The authors did not change anything. Besides most of the paper (most likely) being made up, the clear fraud and obvious deception can be see in the SDS-PAGE gel in Fig. 1. where multiple bands and lanes have been cut out and pasted together. This is a clear case of image manipulation to deceive to make it seem the authors actually expressed these proteins. The whole paper is based on the assumption that these proteins can be expressed and purified which they cannot (see fake gel). My lab at the University of […] has worked with these systems extensively and we
know that these proteins cannot be made in E. coli in the first place. It is unbelievable to me how authors can pollute the scientific literature and enterprise in such a brazen and remorseless way. I am not sure how such a paper could have gone through peer review?
Anyway, I hope the paper is pulled as soon as possible. I am also contacting the co-editors-in-chief.

The editor Zhang replied immediately and requested a clarification, and on same day, the reader sent the following picture, with a message:

“Fig. 1. The express of cEnc-HAO in vitro. (A) Representative SDS–PAGE gels of cEnc (42KDa), HAO (60KDa)and cEnc-HAO (102KDa).”

The fraud and image manipulation can be found in Fig.1.
Multiple lanes and bands have been cut and pasted together to give the appearance that proteins were expressed and purified that weren’t. Please keep me updated here and thanks for your help in keeping the scientific literature free of fraud
“.

It is quite obvious that the two bands in HAO and cEnc-HAO lane have been crudely slapped-on in a hack job in Photoshop or maybe even in MS Paint, while the other 3 lanes were spliced together. The rest of the paper contains no image data, just some quantifications which are very likely to based on experimental data just as fake as that “representative” gel. For all we know, it might be a fictional product of a real paper mill, of the kind China has a flourishing industry of.

In fact, the entire paper makes little sense scientifically, even without data fakery. The reader, who was also the reviewer of that paper at Journal of Structural Biology (Elsevier) explained it:

In addition, I have discovered the system they worked on and know that it is impossible to produce these proteins under the conditions (or any other that I know of, no one has done it so far) they used. I of course told the editor and the paper was not published.

The paper, or in fact the authors, should have been blacklisted by Elsevier, after it was rejected at Journal of Structural Biology. Instead, the authors managed to place their fraudulent paper unchanged in an even higher ranking journal: rejected at impact factor 3.75 and accepted at impact factor 5.59 at Science of the Total Fraud Environment. This difference means some serious cash in hand in China, where scientists are financially rewarded by the state according to journal impact factor points.

Now, a professional course of action for Zhang and his editor colleagues at Science of the Total Environment would have been to involve Elsevier research integrity office (yes, it exists, whatever its real purpose might be) and proceed with the retraction of that fraudulent paper, or in fact a simple editorial withdrawal since it is officially not published yet, but labelled as “in press”. Zhang did none of that, and replied instead:

“Thanks for proving more information.
The fabrication of figures or images should be proved by a professional method.
We cannot judge this only by using eyes since the gel images sometimes were taken with low quality.
Do you mind to contact the authors directly for the raw data so you can prove what you have suspected? This is a published work, so any discussion should be welcome.

An interesting attitude. The reader is supposed to contact authors by email to ask if they faked their paper and leave the publisher out of it. Also the Editor-in-Chief Damià Barceló saw it this way. Barcelo is professor at CSIC Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research in Barcelona in Spain. On 11 February 2020, he wrote this brainfart as a reply, presumably expecting the insouciant reader to finally shut up and go away:

You have always the option of sending a letter to the editor with all comments made. This letter will be submitted to reviewers..
If this is accepted then the authors of the original paper will have the right to answer to your questions. This is how it works when discrepancy occurs.
As Yifeng mentioned it needs to be proved by a profesional method. I do not say that you are wrong and he is right, we just need a consistent verification of this.

This is screwed up on many different levels. Barcelo simply does not believe in research fraud, which might be either his inflamed academic superiority complex, or a national and generational issue. After all, a bunch of old Spanish men like himself recently ran campaigns in canonising their martyr saint St Carlos of Oviedo, culminating in a statement from the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences declaring data manipulation as irrelevant.

A letter to editor is a means of scientific discussion, not of allegation of research misconduct. Although strike that, this is what journals do routinely when issues of data manipulation or data theft arise, see here.

Also, one does not submit objective evidence of research fraud for peer review, because even the most qualified peers in any given research field are not experts in data integrity or privy to certain facts about the authors’ histories. Although, strike that too, it even happened to me, my own journalistic investigation has failed such a peer review.

One does not treat obvious research misconduct as an academic dispute and offers a letter exchange instead of the appropriate retraction. Although, strike that too, this is what happened in a Karger journal after Karolinska Institutet requested a retraction of a Macchiarini and Jungebluth paper.

Barcelo, instead of sending the picture of the fake gel to Elsevier for analysis, demanded that the reader pays for a professional image analysis himself, after which his evidence will be rejected anyway, either by editor or after peer review. The reader however did procure this analysis and sent it to Barcelo and Zhang:

Pretty clear, isn’t it? Worse than originally suspected. Yet Barcelo or Zhang never replied. Neither did they reply to my email, but this was not expected. Is Elsevier aware? We don’t know, but they certainly did not contact the whistleblower either. The fraudulent paper is still online, costs $41.95 to read. Case closed?


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15 comments on “Elsevier’s research integrity

  1. Elsevier AI submission system is not perfect yet. The system does not transmit detected manipulated data by editor/peer reviewer of one journal to another journal editor. No time or money to address this problem, as it is very seldom anyway and technically too complex to build. Moreover, freedom of every editor in chief of journal is important and Elsevier respect that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanos Tiliakos

    Had a similar experience, being in exactly the same position as the author, with another Elsevier journal and Chinese researchers. In my case, though, the insult was also personal, as they took one of my formulas from one of my papers and presented it as their own – although they were stupid enough to make a mistake in the math…
    After sending pages and pages of emails and formal letters to the editor and the editor-in-chief, the whole thing ended up with a variation of “You have always the option of sending a letter to the editor with all comments made. This letter will be submitted to reviewers..”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanos Tiliakos

    No, I was informed by an Elsevier editor that if the Chief-Editor is notified, he/she can flag a paper and the associated authors as suspected fraud and transmit the warning to all Elsevier journals. This is not an issue of AI submission system.

    Like

    • Hmm, sorry, it was sarcastic tone for an ironic text. I thought it was an evidence. My apology for creating a misunderstanding.

      Like

      • Thanos Tiliakos

        Sorry, my bad. Irony is a bit hard to be transmitted through text.

        Like

  4. We should stop doing any reviewing for Elsevier. They have a fantastic business with a record high profit by publishing junk science and doing systematic misinformation, while scientists do the all the job for free and NIH/NLM do the public journal indexing also for free.

    We researchers should some time lift our eyes from the bottom of the test tubes and react against a scientific publication industry totally out of control!

    Like

    • Challenger

      Which other publishers are better? Last year I contacted 3 journals with clear examples of fraud. No reply from 2 journals, formal reply from third one but no actions. These papers are still on line collecting citations, not even some statement of concern published.

      Like

      • No publisher is better than another one. Because there scientists and publishers are not separate. There are the same material scientists and reviewers and editors at the same time. Scientists should stop only blaming naughty legacy and/or new OA (nice and naughty) publishers, but should reconsider deeply science practices for validity by education and funders start to consider fraudsters by balanced punishment.

        Like

  5. My advisor is submitting a grant, and one of his hypothesis is based on data from a paper from China (eg, Zhang, Shi, Zhong…. state key laboratory….), which he asked me to replicate in my cell model. I have data that suggests that this is not reproducible, but he keeps pushing me to tweak experiments to “get it to work”, and get more data because he is excited by his hypothesis, which is probably wrong as it is based on a preliminary data from China.

    My advisor is too politically correct to accept that there may be a good reason why you cant trust data from another part of the world. Result: it wastes my time, renders the grant less likely to be funded, and me more likely to be an unemployed (oops, I mean “failed”) scientist. This is what happens when you have a large culture on which many are determined to make a ton of money and the expense of the truth. Money wins, and honesty loses.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What about making a proposition of a reproducible project and using this article as background https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00380-2? And ask OSF for help?

    Like

  7. http://sourcedb.cigit.cas.cn/zj/201403/t20140330_4083105.html
    You-peng Chen (陈猷鹏), PhD, working at Chinese Academy of Science. Chen is not a physician so most likely, either he forged data himself, or he is a customer in a different cluster from those we flagged in the other investigation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Off topic. Does anybody know why thousands of Astronomy and other unrelated to biomedical topics are indexed on PUBMED? seems to me the resources are better spent on policing the biomed journals with fraud.

    Like

  9. Well, this sounds like buying a car and finding that there are a lot of faults in it; when you file the customer’s complaint form with the company, they simply tell you go and build a car yourself and have the required quality control passed. If not, shut up and enjoy your faulty car for as many kilometers as you wish. I agree; journal editors and publishers (predatory and nonpredatory alike) do not want/need to understand how the customers’ complaints must be addressed and solved, especially if the complaining customer is right. The tag ‘academic dispute’ is an empty signifier which serves them well for avoiding to repair the flaws in the car.

    Like

  10. At least something has happened:

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720309700

    Corrigendum to “A self-assembled nanocompartment in anammox bacteria for resisting intracelluar hydroxylamine stress” [Sci. Total Environ. 717, 15 May 2020, 137030]

    The authors regret that the printed version of the above article contained the following error. The authors would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused.

    Due to the author’s inappropriate processing of the images, a correction is made to Fig. 1A in the published paper “A self-assembled nanocompartment in anammox bacteria for resisting intracelluar hydroxylamine stress”. The corrected Fig. 1 is shown below. To avoid misunderstanding, the following remarks: “HAO protein exists as an inclusion body, cEnc and cEnc-HAO proteins can exist in supernatant.” was added.

    Like

  11. Pingback: The Lombard Connection - Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it

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