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:
“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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