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Researchers flag over 400 ‘dubious papers’ published in China in last 3 years

Researchers say these 'paper mills' provide everything — from fake experimental images to fake Gmail IDs for correspondence.

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New Delhi: A team of independent researchers have flagged over 400 ‘dubious’ research papers published in China over the last three years. All these papers seem to have originated from the same source — a company that provides scientific papers on demand.

The company, which the researchers could not identify, seems to provide a full service — a complete research paper written in English containing fake research data generated through photo-editing software and even bogus email IDs. 

Microbiologist and image manipulation expert Elisabeth Bik has called such companies ‘paper mills’ in her blog post about the ‘dubious’ papers.

These papers got published in respectable and peer-reviewed journals published by popular publishing companies such as Wiley, Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis, among others.

Bik worked with independent investigators, who identified themselves by their pseudonyms Smut Clyde, Morty, Tiger BB8, and found over 400 ‘dubious’ papers.

“Part of the problem is that MD (Doctor of Medicine) students in China need to have a paper published to get their MD, but they do not have time to do research, so that is an unrealistic goal,” Bik told ThePrint.

A separate research team comprising Jana Christopher, an image data integrity analyst in Germany, and Jennifer A. Byrne, a professor at the University of Sydney, also published a research paper this week, identifying at least 17 ‘dubious’ papers that originated from the same ‘paper mill’.

In her blog post, Bik said the ‘dubious’ papers had similar-looking bar graphs.

Her team also found Western blots — a widely used analytical technique to detect specific proteins — with highly similar panels from different papers.

“The Western blot bands in all 400+ papers are all very regularly spaced and have a smooth appearance in the shape of a dumbbell or tadpole, without any of the usual smudges or stains. All bands are placed on similar-looking backgrounds, suggesting they were copy/pasted from other sources, or computer-generated,” Bik wrote in her blog. 

Also read: Annamalai University accused of plagiarism, data manipulation in over 200 research papers

Journals that published the ‘dubious’ papers

Bik’s team found that some journals had particularly high numbers of ‘dubious’ papers.

For example, Artificial Cells Nanomedicine and Biotechnology, published by Taylor & Francis, had 76 such papers, Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, published by Wiley, had 57 papers and Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, published by Elsevier, had 45 papers.

Most of these papers were published beginning 2017 and featured different authors from different institutes and departments. Since there is hardly any overlap of authorship in these papers, the similarities between them raise doubt over their authenticity. 

A number of papers flagged by Bik’s team had Gmail IDs of the authors. But the fact that Google is banned in China indicates the IDs were fake.

In a Twitter thread explaining the findings, Bik pointed out that over 800 peer reviewers have seen these papers and not raised any critical questions. 

Such incidents of misconduct from China is particularly concerning as China overtook the US in 2018, for the first time, to become the world’s top producer of science publications.

Also read: Forget top 100 list, India doesn’t even have a mechanism to identify research universities


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