Guest post Research integrity

“How can one artifically make this happen?”

"This phenomenon is called "fraud with Photoshop", dear Dr Wei." - Aneurus Inconstans

Aneurus Inconstans is a pseudonymous plant scientist. In his field, he is used to the educated, professional and diligent research fraud, the likes of Olivier Voinnet, or in worst case, Pedro Rodriguez. But what Aneurus saw happening in biomedicine, especially in cancer research since he joined our team….

Well, here is Aneurus’ angry rant.


The global medical research dump

By Aneurus inconstans

Fraudsters among medical researchers and doctors in China are not confined being papermill customers because pushed to do so by an insane system for raising their income above the minimum wage. A plethora of serial fraudsters from China have been already reported at For Better Science over the years by Smut Clyde, TigerBB8 and Leonid himself, and I like to quote a few names.

Xing Lin and Jinmin Zhao at Guangxi Medical University, Na Lin at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, Hui Cai and Junyi Shen at Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Pengwen Wang and Jinzhou Tian at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, all capable of outrageous fabrications in hundreds of papers on the miraculous properties of herbal mixtures against serious diseases. Rijun Gui and Hui Jin at Qingdao University, with their fake natechnology-based cancer cures. The cancer researchers Li Jia at Dalian Medical University and her mentor Jianing Zhang at Dalian University of Technology, who stand out for the variety of lab technologies they manipulated to create imaginary data to demonstrate stuff existing just in their heads. Guoqiang Zhao and his affiliates at Zhengzhou University, who For Better Science readers may remember for their iconic copy/pasted mice playing invisible pianos.

Professor Zhao’s paper mill of fraud

A cancer research professor in China runs a paper mill, sources claim he sells first authorships for a bribe. Problem for his customers: the peer-reviewed papers they pay for, contain fake data.

Qin He at Sichuan University and her fraudulent data on stem cell-derived exosomal cancer treatments. Feng-Jin Guo from Chongqing Medical University, who boasts tens of flagged papers on PubPeer and several retractions in studies on apoptosis and chondrocyte hyperthrophy. And how to forget a truly heavyweight of science fraud with his 70+ PubPeer flagged articles and 16 retractions, the one and only Xuetao Cao.

There are cartloads of people like those though, in every realm and country. Medical research is massively flooded by fake data in all fields, and most of the published data are irreproducible.

In my previous guest article on some Argentinian sorcerers, at the end I tried to list the most notorious fraudsters in cancer research and I failed, as the complete list could fill a medium-sized city telephone book. The only reason I started with those names above is that the protagonists of today’s story come from China too.

The magical duo in Wuhan

Meet Changhua Wang and Shengrong Sun, professors at Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University. I feel partly relieved they don’t handle bat coronaviruses at least. Instead these unbelievable characters “work” on a variety of topics ranging from cancer to cardiology, from diabetes to pharmacology. Dr Wang boasts 21 papers flagged on PubPeer, Dr Sun has 16, of which 5 are authored by them both.

Changhua Wang, image: Wuhan University
Shengrong Sun, image: Renmin Hospital

Dr Wang enjoys re-using blots to describe different proteins under completely different conditions within and across his own papers. Here below the outrageously fictional Liu et al 2019, on the molecular mechanism of phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) in the development of insulin resistance in myotubes.

Liu W, Tian X, Wu T, Liu L, Guo Y, Wang C* PDE5A Suppresses Proteasome Activity Leading to Insulin Resistance in C2C12 Myotubes Int J Endocrinol (2019) doi: 10.1155/2019/3054820

A tubulin control (red boxes) reused from Ding et al 2016a, where a totally different experiment was performed on human liver cancer cells; a PDE5A Western blot (blue boxes) described four years before as p-JAK2 in Yao et al 2015, the latter is a paper about GRP78- and STAT3-mediated breast cancer proliferation; a PDE5A blot (magenta boxes) horizontally flipped was described four years before as PPARa in Zhang et al 2015a, a paper on the effects of the flavone Wogonin on osteopontin expression in adipocytes; a GFPu blot (yellow boxes) horizontally flipped appeared four years before as GFPu (but on different conditions) and GRP78 in Zhang et al 2015b, a paper on the role of autophagy in the regulation of insulin in adipocytes.

Dr Wang commented on PubPeer to this and other threads the following (highlight mine):

Dear Sir/Madam, We greatly appreciate your interest in our work and pointed out the errors in the paper. We seemly used the pictures improperly, caused unintentional by the mistakes of the authors. We will carefully reexamine the manuscript and original data to ensure the accuracy and integrity of results. We will then contact the Journal to correct the errors. Your sincerely, Changhua Wang

When challenged to explain how comes that the same kind of “mistake” systematically occurs in tens of his papers, Dr Wang prudently chose silence. Hopefully the publisher Hindawi won’t bother with Wang’s excuses and will instead follow my advice to retract this horror asap. The matter is now in the hands of the research integrity team leader Ramya Kabali.

The already mentioned Ding et al 2016a, published in the mega-journal PLoS One, in turn shares several blots (often rescaled and/or mirrored) with yet other productions by the group:

Ding Y, Cao Y, Wang B, Wang L, Zhang Y, Zhang D, Chen X, Li M, Wang C* APPL1-Mediating Leptin Signaling Contributes to Proliferation and Migration of Cancer Cells PLoS One (2016) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166172

Two p-STAT3 blots (green and blue boxes) were described as p62 and Akt, respectively, in another PLoS One fantasy masterpiece, Guan et al 2016. The latter deals with the amazing properties of curcumin (!) in suppressing proliferation and migration of breast cancer cells. Moreover, a p-JAK2 blot was described as p-STAT3 in Ding et al 2016b, the latter is a Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology production on APPL1-mediated activation of STAT3 in hepatic gluconeogenesis.

While the PLoS publication ethics editor Maddy Ghose acknowledged my notifications and promised to investigate the three PLoS One articles by this group, I got no answer as of today from Mol Cell Endocrinol Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Klinge (University of Louisville, KY), nor from Elsevier’s ethics office for Ding et al 2016b, Zhang et al 2016 and Khan et al 2016.

The PubPeer discussion of the latter, Khan et al 2016, sees Dr Wang stepping in to try to demonstrate the diversity of the offending blots.

Khan S, Zhang D, Zhang Y, Li M, Wang C* Wogonin attenuates diabetic cardiomyopathy through its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties Mol Cell Endocrinol (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2016.03.025

The Collagen-1 blot in Figure 3C is the same one published a year before in the already encountered Zhang et al 2015a, where it was described as p-PPARa.

Below here Dr Changhua Wang’s analysis of the bands and his comment. Dr Wang’s argument is the usual, which is to highlight a putative one pixel difference and ignore the 99.9% perfect identity.

Judge for yourself:

“We greatly appreciate your interest in our work. We checked the pictures using simplest method and found that these two pictures showed very high similarity. However, we think that they are two different images (the different areas in the pictures were shown in red box or arrows). Thanks again!”

Since the original blots slightly differ in the horizontal size, it is ironic that Dr. Wang’s analysis aligns the blots so precisely that in the end he beautifully proves exactly what he wanted to dismiss. I couldn’t have done any better.

If Dr Wang analysis wasn’t enough, here an animated overlap created by our sleuth colleague Orchestes quercus:

Quite incredible that a university professor could decide to embark himself on such an embarrassing and counterproductive defence.

But Professor Wang didn’t stop there.

Again unwittingly, he nicely provided evidence of band identity for the already mentioned Ding et al 2016b:

Ding Y, Zhang D, Wang B, Zhang Y, Wang L, Chen X, Li M, Tang Z, Wang C* APPL1-mediated activation of STAT3 contributes to inhibitory effect of adiponectin on hepatic gluconeogenesis Mol Cell Endocrinol (2016) doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2016.05.021

“We thank you for your interest in our work. We think that these are two different images. Please see the attached! Thanks again!”

Truly crazy.

Yet another avalanche of re-used blots describing always different things across Wang’s papers in this milestone study published at Frontiers about the beneficial effects of the flavonoid icariin against insulin resistance:

Li M, Zhang Y, Cao Y, Zhang D, Liu L, Guo Y, Wang C. Icariin Ameliorates Palmitate-Induced Insulin Resistance Through Reducing Thioredoxin-Interacting Protein (TXNIP) and Suppressing ER Stress in C2C12 Myotubes Front Pharmacol (2018) doi: 10.3389/fphar.2018.01180

The offending blots are describing at the same time p-AS160 and p-Akt, tubulin and STAT3, GLUT4 and p-PERK, p-STAT3 and p-PPARa, p-STAT3 and PEPCK, TXNIP and Adpn, respectively.

The following article Wen et al 2020 is about exosomes contributing to insulin resistance in cardiac myocytes. PDK1 was described as APPL1 four years before:

Wen Z, Li J, Fu Y, Zheng Y, Ma M, Wang C* Hypertrophic Adipocyte-Derived Exosomal miR-802-5p Contributes to Insulin Resistance in Cardiac Myocytes Through Targeting HSP60 Obesity (2020) doi: 10.1002/oby.22932

I have shown you just a selection of Dr Wangs’ scientific atrocities, the whole list of his fake papers can be admired here.

Let’s make a smooth transition from Changhua Wang’s to Shengrong Sun’s corpus of imaginary data by discussing one of the five articles that have them both as co-authors, Wu et al 2019a:

Wu Q, Sun S, Li Z, Yang Q, Li B, Zhu S, Wang L, Wu J, Yuan J, Wang C, Li J*, Sun S* Breast cancer-released exosomes trigger cancer-associated cachexia to promote tumor progression Adipocyte (2019) doi: 10.1080/21623945.2018.1551688 [For unknown reasons, in the PubPeer thread of this article the third last author is wrongly reported as “Changhua Yang” instead of “Changhua Wang“]

Co-corresponding author is Juanjuan Li, assistant professor also at Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University.

This fairytale production blathers about the role of breast cancer released exosomes triggering cachexia (weight loss). Several panels overlap or have been reused from Wu et al 2018, where conditions and treatments were of course different.

The first author Qi Wu, former PhD student in Shengrong Sun’s lab and now researcher at the Tongji University Cancer Center, commented on behalf of Sun the following (highlights mine):

“Dear Aneurus, We are sorry for our negligence. First of all, we are committed to the authenticity of the data. However, there must be confusion about data usage due to these experiments were performed simultaneously. We will begin to immediately scrutinize the original data. If it exists figure misuse, we will apply for a corrigendum from Journal. If there is data fraud, the article must be withdrawn instantly. Thank you for your review. We will do our best to maintain the authenticity of our research. Best regards Wu Qi”

Was that a commendable promise to investigate any form of misconduct perpetrated by an unknown rouge lab member? Of course not, Wu and Sun are just first class cheaters.

I informed the journal on November 3rd, 2022, 48 hours later I posted my concerns on PubPeer. By that time, the authors had already applied for an erratum to the journal. They wrote to the journal on November 2nd, 2022, one day after my PubPeer post. Which means, they had scrutinized the raw data, judged everything was still perfectly reliable, and assembled the new figures in less than 24 hours. The quintessence of efficiency.

How do I know that?

The Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of Adipocyte, Prof Fahumiya Samad, replied to my concerned email by forwarding me the whole email exchange between herself and the Taylor & Francis staff on the erratum request by the authors.

The senior editor Laurence Kendall-Cheeseman contacted the research integrity manager Fulu Akinduro-Aje. Both were concerned, and scaled up the matter to the EiC for an opinion. Prof Samad recommended a retraction. Below are the salient passages of the various emails, which for once are delivering a nice message (highlights mine).

L. Kendall-Cheeseman: “I wanted to check with you about this requested erratum […] I am not really sure how running simultaneous experiments could result in the misuse of their images.”

F. Akinduro-Aje: “I have had a look at this article and I have major concerns. I cannot see the correction request made by the authors. However, I have very significant concerns and would like to have the EiC’s views on these. […] The errors are very significant and these actually cannot be addressed with a correction notice but again, I have not seen the correction request.”

F. Samad: “There are so many “mistakes” in this article that it is not simply a case of “running the experiments simultaneously” as the authors claim, but it is simply fraudulent manipulation of the data. Moreover, there is major overlap with an already published article by the same group. I will not support a revised article. This article must be retracted ASAP. I’m not sure how this will be done; this is the first time I have come across something like this!

I thanked them all. This was truly refreshing. I wish that a retraction is coming soon.

The speed with which the authors tried to brush off the fake data through a correction prompted me to notify the journals minutes after each of my PubPeer posts. What a life I made for myself.

Below here another joint effort by Changhua Wang and Shengrong Sun, both corresponding authors on this myocardial cell apoptosis piece of garbage:

Zhu S, Wang Y, Liu H, Wei W, Tu Y, Chen C, Song J, Xu Z, Li J, Wang C*, Sun S* Thyroxine Affects Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Macrophage Differentiation and Myocardial Cell Apoptosis via the NF-κB p65 Pathway Both In Vitro and In Vivo Mediators Inflamm (2019) doi: 10.1155/2019/2098972

A Bax blot described as p-AMPK in Wang et al 2019, the latter is a paper that sees as co-corresponding authors Changhua Wang and professor Zhiliang Xu, also at Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University, whose publication record I haven’t checked yet.

Shengrong Sun can boast a wider range of falsified lab techniques, not just Western blots. Here a very recent production:

Liu J, Guo L, Rao Y, Zheng W, Gao D, Zhang J, Luo L, Kuang X, Sukumar S, Tu Y, Chen C, Sun S* In situ Injection of pH- and Temperature-Sensitive Nanomaterials Increases Chemo-Photothermal Efficacy by Alleviating the Tumor Immunosuppressive Microenvironment Int J Nanomedicine (2022) doi: 10.2147/ijn.s367121

Bioluminescence and NIR fluorescence imaging of 4T1-luc tumor-bearing BALB/c mice at 0, 1, 3, 6, 12 and 24 h after administration of MNs-PEG/IR780-DOX. The magenta boxes highlight both identical mice and fluorescence signals, while the green boxed mice are identical but the signals differ.

The whole collection of Dr Shengrong Sun imaginary data is here.

More medical scammers in Xian and Xiamen

As mentioned, Shengrong Sun (likewise Changhua Wang) is used to recycle his own data across his own papers. There is one exception, though.

One day a few years ago, Dr Sun also decided to purchase a papermill product to add to his collection of bogus data. Who knows why. It may be trendy in China to have at least one.

Here is the that paper:

Chai CY, Song J, Tan Z, Tai IC, Zhang C, Sun S* Adipose tissue-derived stem cells inhibit hypertrophic scar (HS) fibrosis via p38/MAPK pathway J Cell Biochem (2019) doi: 10.1002/jcb.27689

Every single blot and every single micrograph in this article had been published already before either in Li et al 2016 or in Chen et al 2017 by unrelated groups.

The first of these two articles, Li et al 2016, has an almost word-by-word identical title to the one of Sun’s paper. Moreover, the data are indeed meant to demonstrate exactly the same points, and the blots are arranged and presented exactly the same way and in same order.

Li Y, Zhang W, Gao J, Liu J, Wang H, Li J, Yang X, He T, Guan H, Zheng Z, Han S, Dong M, Han J, Shi J*, Hu D* Adipose tissue-derived stem cells suppress hypertrophic scar fibrosis via the p38/MAPK signaling pathway Stem Cell Res Ther (2016) doi: 10.1186/s13287-016-0356-6

Since all reviewers are always asked to judge also the novelty of submitted manuscripts and should check the available literature on the specific topic, I wonder: how is it possible the reviewers of the later article, Chai et al 2019, did not spot the three-year younger Liu et al 2016? Is there any peer-review going on at Stem Cell Res Ther (a BioMedCentral/Springer journal)?

Since researchers are usually screening the literature on a daily base to be updated on the newly published papers related to their own field, I wonder: how is it possible that the authors of the earlier article, Li et al 2016, have not noticed for three years and until now that an identical paper to theirs has been published by others?

The corresponding authors of Liu et al 2016 are Dahai Hu and Jihong Shi from Xijing Hospital of Fourth Military Medical University in Xian city.

While it was not possible to find how Dr Shi looks like, below here is Dr Dahai Hu, in military uniform, next to his PubPeer comment on the duplication of “their data” (highlight mine):

“We, including all authors of this article (doi: 10.1186/s13287-016-0356-6), do not know them (Chai et al.), and we don’t have any interaction with them. According to the date of publication, obviously, someone copied the article we had published. Please ask them to provide the raw data. Meanwhile, we tried to contact them, but there was no response. Thank you very much. Sincerely yours.”

They cannot provide the raw data, dear Dr Hu! You’re the only one who has them, aren’t you?

When asked to post the data so proving his lab indeed performed the experiments, this diligent soldier has revealed nothing to the enemy. On top of that, the emails provided for correspondence in the paper do not obviously reflect the names of the authors, as they read georgegjx1@163.com and xijingburnslab1@163.com.

The second article deals with corneal endothelial cell regeneration in rabbits, published in that toxic dump called Scientific Reports:

Chen J, Li Z, Zhang L, Ou S, Wang Y, He X, Zou D, Jia C, Hu Q, Yang S, Li X, Li J, Wang J, Sun H, Chen Y, Zhu YT, Tseng SCG, Liu Z*, Li W* Descemet’s Membrane Supports Corneal Endothelial Cell Regeneration in Rabbits Sci Rep (2017) doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-07557-2

The corresponding authors are Wei Li and Zuguo Liu at the Eye Institute of Xiamen University:

Image source: Xiamen University

Image source: Xiamen University

Dr Wei Li commented on the data reappearing in Shengrong Sun’s article the following:

“We believe our data in the paper was stolen and used in the J Cell Biochem paper. We do not have any collaboration with that group. We will report this to the institution.”

It’s not surprising, however, this article hides a pearl of deception on its own. Here you go:

Animated overlap by Orchestes quercus

Two micrographs in Figure 4 largely overlap, and the corneal endothelial cell layer (CEC) to the bottom has been digitally modified.

Is Figure 4 crucial for the take-home message of the whole article? Well, when a paper aims to unveil the function played by the Descemet’s membrane (the thin cell layer immediately adjacent to the CEC) for the corneal endothelial wound healing process, the answer is definitively YES.

Here another analysis by our sleuth colleague Tulipa fosteriana showing the perfect overlap:

Our entertainer Dr Wei did not lose heart and continued to deny all evidence. He also posted “raw data” digitally modified and slightly different from the published micrographs (not shown here, please refer to the PubPeer thread) in order to enhance differences. What a character. He then provided absurd, shameless explanations:

We double checked our raw data and confirmed that Figure 4D and Figure 4F was from different cross-sections of tissues from day 3 and day 14. Corneal stromal tissues showed high homogeneity so that sometimes looks similar in different cross-sections.

When it was pointed out to him that every biologist should know that two different tissues cannot be 100% identical over hundreds of micrometers wide portions, Dr Wei replied:

I am also very interested about this, please tell me how could this happen, how could part of two cross-sections seems like identical. If it is not naturally happened, how can one artifically make this happen? I can then ask my student to give an explanation. Thanks.

This phenomenon is called “fraud with Photoshop”, dear Dr Wei. And you know that well, I guess.

Tens of thousands of biomedical researchers keep squandering taxpayers’ money all over the world. We keep paying them fat salaries and hefty grants to produce this garbage. The Rod of Asclepius continues to be outraged without restraint.

When will this crap come to an end?

Original images: Rod of Asclepius, dance1, dance2, graffiti, spots. Collage for satire/parody purposes

P.S. I wish to thank TigerBB8 for helping me gather information for this article.


17 comments on ““How can one artifically make this happen?”

  1. “There are cartloads of people like those though, in every realm and country.” Vague statements like that taint an otherwise excellent article that names names and places blame specifically where it ought to go. If we made a heat map of bullshit research worldwide, we all know where the reddest region would be.

    Like

    • I’m fine with you disagreeing, but I stand by my opinion that that sentence is 100% correct. You should take a look at the bunch of crooks at Weill Cornell Medical College, or MD Anderson, or at CRUK institute, etc. Have you seen who the leaders of the retractions leaderboard are? Japanese. Not to metion the Lesné scandal, whose impact in terms of misled fundings worldwide is unmatched.
      Do you want to play a game?
      Choose an institution of your choice, one at random in the world. I’ll find you half a dozen cheaters or more. Want to bet? Pick one.

      Like

    • In the Red Country, of course, amount-wise. However, no one really takes these journals seriously anymore. The truly damaging crap comes from places like MD Anderson, Karolinska, etc etc , which were supposed to mean something😟

      Like

    • Wow, I tossed you a nice juicy softball, and you came up with a few minor PubPeer quibbles. Leonid knows there the real money is here, including the fakest Nature paper in history.

      Like

  2. Just putting this out there. Is it better, or worse, to have a truly scientific China? What about leaving China to stew in its own juice?

    Like

    • An interesting thought. But when you have spent as much time as I have trying to bat Sinocrap away from the “real” journals you’ll appreciate that all cesspits have a tendency to slop over.

      Like

      • NMH, the failed scientist and incel

        Well, in light of the strong probability that SARS-CoV2 was a human engineered virus out of a Wuhan lab, I would say China’s contribution to scientific progress is a VERY strong negative to humanity. Since 10’s of millions have died from this, I think this may account for more deaths than the lives saved by western science with stuff like antibiotics.

        China itself publishes the most crap per capita and then they create a deadly virus. And I would argue this is a cultural issue…IMO, Chinese culture is more obsessed with status than any other culture I have ever encountered, and this creates misery to the world so that the scientists at the top in China (Xueto Cao, and the virus lady in Wuhan) can feel a little better about themselves. Of course, there are plenty of western enablers (dolts at the global health alliance, super-dolt Angie Rasmussen). Bah-humbug.

        Like

    • It would be better to have a truly scientific China, but based on what’s going on there it does not appear realistic..

      Like

  3. “The speed with which the authors tried to brush off the fake data through a correction prompted me to notify the journals minutes after each of my PubPeer posts. What a life I made for myself.”

    Maybe that would be a nice feature for PubPeer to add in the future: a way to have the journal automatically informed, as happens with the corresponding author already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And to notify the respective funding agencies, universities. Also automatically notify / “troll”university media outlets which are very quick to trumpet fake “breakthroughs” by the fakers and mislead the public.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can share a little trick I use when I encounter a particularly bad stinker on PubPeer (or I did before I gave up trying to help stem the shit-tide of bogus papers). On the list of authors to be informed I use one of the minor spots to insert the e-mail address of the editor who handled the paper, if they are listed. No idea if this has any effect, but seems worth a try.

      Like

      • magazinovalex

        The “Get alerts for new activity” button (when NOT logged in) works just as fine without spoiling the authors’ emails section.

        Like

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