Professor Florian Stadler is a German materials scientist and nanotechnologist in China. He is very concerned with the lax research integrity attitude there. Luckily, his lab is a paradigm of good publication ethics. Oh wait. Smut Clyde wants you to meet Prof Stadler’s most productive postdoc, Dr Amit Kumar.
In September 2021, a reader reached out to me:
It was Prof. Dr. Florian Stadler, distinguished professor for materials science at Shenzhen University, who arrived there in 2014 after a previous faculty stint in Korea, postdoc stints in Japan and Belgium, and a PhD graduation at the University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. Professor Stadler works in the area of polymer chemistry, nanoparticle synthesis, water purification and sensors, fields indeed polluted by papermills and other kind of research fraud.
Papermill Industry enters its Logical Growth Phage. Smut Clyde explains what coordination polymer chemistry has to do with chickenshit.
How good to meet a decent and very concerned German researcher in a country where science fraud is so pervasive! Dr Stadler wanted to talk to me about
- “Coercive citations
- Hijacked journals
- Authors being asked by the referees to write the referee report for them
- Highly unbalanced citations…”
And other abuses of peer review, authorship and publication ethics. Yet we never got to talk about that, but in June 2022 I reached out to Prof Stadler with the message that his papers were being flagged on PubPeer. It’s almost 30 publications now, and not all were penned by his postdoc Amit Kumar.
But you have to read Smut Clyde’s exposé first before you learn how Prof Stadler decided to heroically crack down on research misconduct in his own papers.
By Smut Clyde
Suppose that you have engineered an advanced nanotech material that breaks down water pollutants and purifies industrial effluent by converting the energy of sunlight into free radicals. ‘Free Radicals’ is not the Len Lye movie, nor even a 1970s demand for the liberation of political activists (not even Wodewick, the notorious wobber and wapist). Rather, as any fule kno, free radicals are incomplete molecules bearing an unpaired valence electron, and because every unpaired electron aspires to become a molecular bond, they are helpfully reactive in that purifying role.
Like atomic nuclei, unpaired electrons have ‘spin’, and like nuclei they can be persuaded to flip between -½ and +½ spin states by the right combination of microwave radiation and magnetic field, so smart people invented a method of electron spin resonance to measure their presence and sample their local quantum environments, analogous to NMR. Rather than varying the microwave frequency and looking for spikes in absorption when it aligns with the magnetic field and resonance occurs, ESR data are collected by holding frequency constant and varying the field strength, but it still seems reasonable to call the result a ‘spectrum’.
Prof Callaghan did not cover ESR in his NMR quantum-theory course some 40-odd years ago so I am only repeating what I learned from a crash course at the University of W*k*pedia. Even so I am fairly sure that the baseline, noise-dominated segments of these plots shouldn’t duplicate themselves at different scales or after vertical or horizontal flips. They should look more like ‘noise’ and less like someone trained a neural network on cursive handwriting exercises. In short, if authors are going to hand-draw their ESR plots then some more time looking at actual ESR outputs might be a good idea.
Regular visitors to PubPeer should be familiar with the Brokenspectra of fake, Frankensteinian spectra and collaged X-ray diffractograms. In contrast, fake ESR are a new outlet for artistic creativity. So far they are confined to the prodigious output of Amit Kumar and his Highly Cited Colleagues.
Smut Clyde and TigerBB8 investigate another case of nanotechnology research in China. Connected teams of authors pretended to work on cleaning up the environment of radioactive pollution, and instead released a toxic sludge of fraudulent data and citations.
This guest post invites you to join the hunt for fabricated data in your science field of interest. Use Google image search to #CleanYourScience!
I know nothing about Dr Kumar, except that after four years as Assistant Professor at Shoolini University (India) he was recruited to the Stadler Laboratory (at Shenzhen University, China), which is Professor Florian Stadler‘s manor.*
He works there on various advanced-material projects, with the general paper-production strategy of “synthesise something, think of a possible application, and pretend that the application led to the synthesis” – not just the water purification side of the street.
Now I am used to scientists wanting people to read their publications. So it came as a surprise to follow the links from Dr Kumar’s academic webpage to the ResearchGate and Google Scholar link-farm records of his productivity, and find that both had recently dissolved back into the quantum flux.
I can only speculate that the deletions were motivated by the hope of deflecting critical attention from the vast, cool, unsympathetic intellects that contribute to PubPeer. Just taking a stab of faith here, or a leap in the dark or something like that. For Dr Kumar has attracted rather a lot of that attention, beginning with Thallarcha lechrioleuca. He boasted of his status as Highly-Cited Researcher, and to the average PubPeer contributor this is like boasting about the size and suddenness of your unexplained income in front of the Audit Department of the IRS, or like boasting to a bull about the redness of your rags.
This provides a kind of natural experiment to test the value of Highly Cited as an index of research quality. Let’s begin with X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy.
XPS measures the absorption of x-rays when they have just enough energy to knock an electron out of an orbital… x-rays with too little energy don’t interact with the electron at all, but the change of interaction also falls off when the x-rays have too much energy. An XRS plot might be a big-picture survey, showing several of these electron-emission lines. Conversely, the equipment might zoom in for a high-resolution expansion of the fine structure within a single line, so the results can be fitted as a sum of contributions from components that are slightly shifted in binding energy by the chemical environment of the molecule. This is clever stuff and I am forever awed by the exquisite precision for tuning the energy of an x-ray beam. It may be that the expense of the experiments is prohibitive, so Kumar &co present the same data in multiple papers, fitted with different components or basis functions.
You might think that if the baseline separating the absorption spikes in one of these survey scans consists of repeated segments of noise, then the whole experiment never happened. I could not possibly comment.
When x-rays are not being absorbed by a material, they’re reflecting off it, assuming that they encounter a crystal at the right angle for the x-ray wavelength to match the spacing between crystal layers. This is where we come under the rubric of x-ray diffraction. Within this domain, suspicions are quickly aroused by a diffractogram where a stretch of small-angle baseline is all glitchy and stitched together from copy-paste, with a longer extended glitch in the intermediate angular range. It turns out to be g-C3N4, which is (I think) a form of
altered carbon modified graphene… definitely not an amorphous material, but not entirely morphous either.
If its artificial origins were not concerning enough, the artefact appears repeatedly in the Kumar oeuvre, presumably from samples of g-C3N4 synthesised afresh for different projects.
Then there are modified, embellished versions, created to demonstrate the successful synthesis of more complex materials, where “synthesis” consisted of replacing parts of the fake diffractogram with epileptic spasms of tics and glitches, retaining more or less of the original, and reminding me for some reason of the more technical sequencer-driven Krautrock musicians. These exercises in collage are not limited to g-C3N4 variants.
There is much more like that, but I’m bored now. Also I need to save space for some bactericidal disk assays, where the cleared roundels in a Petri dish – centred on little wells – show whether the catalyst has broken down an unwanted antibiotic, so there is none to diffuse out from a well and prevent the bacterial growth in the agar. The plates would be more convincing without the heavy-handed Photoshop, is all.
Still with “Utilizing recycled LiFePO4 from batteries…”, Fig 7d displays a related form of fabrication, in which the absence of toxins in pollutant-laden water (after treating it with the photocatalyst) is demonstrated by exposing it to a cell-culture of peripheral blood lymphocytes. The Clone-Tool Fairy waved her magic wand over the microscope photographs.
A slightly later paper reveals a less processed version of the left-hand image:
The right-hand panel (“ATL by-products treated cells”) is particularly versatile. it became “Untreated Human PBL cells” in Fig 14c-d (where the areas of copy-paste fiddle-faddle are left as an exercise for the reader):
The ellipses are to assist comparison with these cookie-cut versions:
With alternative aliases, the images demonstrate how another of Kumar’s miracle materials – a “Pectin / guar-gum / zinc oxide nanocomposite”, perhaps – can stimulate the activity of lymphocytes and thereby cure cancer. Cancer-cure flim-flam is never far away.
Kumar’s general work paradigm seems to consist of farting around in the laboratory and sending the contents of his alembic off to the electron-microscope technicians for some imagery; then retrofitting a story about possible applications for the new material… making stuff up about its properties, with hand-drawn figures and XRD collage to fit the story. At least the SEM and TEM images appear to be genuine, but I am unconvinced that any of these syntheses could ever be replicated.
This is all unfortunate for Prof Stadler, and if I were in his position I would be asking myself some hard questions… like “Should I have signed these papers as senior co-author?” and “Was I an effective mentor, neither negligent nor over-intrusive?” and “Is it Beer O’Clock yet?” and “What is this ‘kibosh’ and why do people keep putting it on things they don’t like?”
I want to stress that the Kumar shenanigans began while he was still Assistant-Professing at Shoolini University. They merely became more frequent in his later career, after he shifted to publishing in Elsevier journals, though I am not saying that peer-review standards are negotiable there. So despite this similarity of these two diffractograms (modulo a vertical compression), they characterise two different materials.
The malarkey is not limited to Kumar, and we find problems in papers from his broader Shoolini circle with no Kumar involvement. I feel for this electron-emission spectrum, where one element’s emission line was brutally shorn off leaving only a flat-topped stump, while another has been duplicated.
From the same paper, some bonus x-ray diffraction, displaying more symmetry than one expects to encounter.
And here is the inevitable spreadsheet, for readers who wish to explore further.
The techno nightmares of the XRD patterns reached a nadir in 2017.
* The sheltering aegis of a Shenzhen University affiliation extends to Dr Kumar’s Shoolini colleague, Gaurav Sharma (“highly cited researcher 2020 & 2021“). As well as faking papers, Dr Sharma’s hobbies include editing journals, reviewing for journals, counting his citations, and mentoring PhD students in How to Science.
LS again. I promised you Prof Stadler’s reaction to all this malfeasance which takes place in and with his name, so here it comes, from June 2022:
“These allegations are pretty much the same that I got from RSC where somebody supplied a 115 page document accusing me of data manipulation, pretty much all focused on “too similar noise”. I don’t know who did that but somebody tries to tarnish my reputation. I checked some of the raw data (not for all) and found that my postdoc made a mistake about the x-axis. i.e. the 5 datasets in the figure did not have the same x-scaling (wavenumbers). This alone makes it extremely likely that she did not do any data manipulation, as interpolating at different x-values to yield faked y-values, would be plainly much harder than having the same x-values.
For the flagged papers, I need to go through the raw data and check them. That might take a while to get them and see whether there is a problem.”
There is so much to unpack. First of all, someone (definitely neither Smut Clyde nor Thallarcha lechrioleuca, but rather a Stadler lab member unhappy about all the research fraud) sent a 115 page report to the Royal Society for Chemistry detailing problems with cloned spectra fragments. So far, it seems RSC decided to do nothing.
Also, the RSC stuff isn’t even on PubPeer, except of this paper flagged by T. lechrioleuca, which might also hint which female postdoc Stadler is blaming while defending himself and Kumar, namely Mina Namvari:
Mina Namvari , Lei Du , Florian J. Stadler Graphene oxide-based silsesquioxane-crosslinked networks – synthesis and rheological behavior RSC Advances (2017) doi: 10.1039/c7ra02764h
And now a month has passed and Stadler still didn’t comment on PubPeer or replied to me, even to reminders. Maybe he found no problems.
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