Here is the story of how it happened: last week, one anonymous visitor emailed us and told us that this paper, “Decreased miR-452 expression in human colorectal cancer and its tumor suppressive function. Genet Mol Res. 2016 May 23;15(2). doi:10.4238/gmr.15027730. PMID: 27323070 (file short name: GMR7730)” features horrible plagiarism, but neglected to provide us with more details. When we used iPlagiarism software to screen it, it seemed to us that it was just a common and serious text duplicate, with a very high similarity index (31%).
If we only concluded that this Chinese-authored paper features suspected plagiarism, then this story would just stop here. However, based on our own intuition, we believed that this paper may have worse plagiarism hidden away somewhere, such as in a figure or table. By curiosity, we dug up the first source paper (file short name: s12957-015-0607-5), authored by another Chinese group, with the first highest sub-similarity index (11%) in the matching summary chart, and compared the pictures and tables, in-depth and one by one, to the GMR7730. Figure 2 and Table 2 are actually very similar to each other.
Next, we found the second source paper (file short name: s12957-015-0607-5) from another Chinese group with the second-highest sub-similarity index (3%) in the matching summary chart, and compared the pictures and tables one by one to the GMR7730. Figure 3 is very similar, especially regarding the image of “Flow Cytometry Result”.
What will happen if we continue to compare the third source paper (file short name: ott-8-1773), also from another Chinese group, with the third-highest sub-similarity index (3%)? In the matching summary chart, and by comparing the pictures and tables one by one to the GMR7730, we were able to conclude that Figure 3 was very similar, especially regarding the image of “Flow Cytometry Result”.
Are you tired yet? Let’s see what will happen if we continue to compare the fourth source paper (file short name: s13000-014-0198-4) from another Chinese group with the fourth-highest sub-similarity index (2%). In the matching summary chart, comparing the pictures and tables one by one to the GMR7730, Figure 3 is very similar, especially the image of “Flow Cytometry Result”.
Disappointed? Well, what if we continue to compare the fifth source paper (file short name: medscimonit-20-2527) from another Chinese group with the sixth-highest sub-similarity index (1%). In the matching summary chart, comparing the pictures and tables one by one to the GMR7730, Figure 3 is very similar, especially the image of “Flow Cytometry Result”.
So, bearing all these results in mind, can we safely make a conclusion that the GMR7730 is a plagiarized paper? The answer is absolutely, resoundingly yes. But is it weird that this paper’s “Figure 3” is so similar to so many other papers published by different journals, and that all of those papers were authored by Chinese? Is it possible that those Chinese-authored papers are plagiarized by each other? Well, before we go to answer those questions, let’s first take a look at this journal, “Genetics and Molecular Research”, published by Ribeirao Preto, SP Brazil. This journal comes from a place very far away from China, but why it is so popular in China, with 78.1% Chinese-authored papers published in 2015 (2056 total in 2015, 1605 Chinese-authored papers in 2015), but with a very low impact factor of 0.764? There is one very possible reason: that this journal has an easy-pass peer review process, or even no peer review process, or does not use anti-plagiarism software, or perhaps the editors are simply incompetent. The “decent” impact factor granted by Thomson Reuters could be an accomplice, as well. Therefore, we screened the second issue published by GMR in 2016 using the same anti-plagiarism software, iPlagiarism, in which the above plagiarized paper GMR7730 exists. The “magic thing”, as it happens, is that the picture and table are similar to many Chinese-authored papers published in the same issue, especially the image of “Flow Cytometry Result”, which is displayed in the following comparison chart. Can we conclude, then, that this journal or publisher is predatory in targeting Chinese authors? Your answer must be yes.
Another important question presents itself, however: what if we screen those plagiarized papers discovered in the second issue of GMR with this same anti-plagiarism software, iPlagiarism, and then make a matching chart to the source papers in the matching summary located in each iPlagiarism similarity report, in addition to comparing those GMR papers with each other closely (see the following chart)? An astonishing thing happens! As it turns out, those Chinese-authored papers were all plagiarized off of each other, and most of them were duplicating the use of Figure 3, most notably with the “Flow Cytometry Result”.
The most severe case of plagiarism occurs in the GMR8173 paper published in GMR, medscimonit-20-2527 paper published in Medical Science Monitor, ott-7-1583 paper and ott-8-1773 paper published in OncoTargets and Therapy, and s13000-014-0198-4 paper in Diagnostic Pathology (see the following chart), which means that those journals are all compromised in the peer review process and the use of anti-plagiarism software, or that the editors are incompetent.
One more very interesting question also comes out: why do all of the Chinese-authored papers love those “beautiful” pictures so much? We put the metadata of all the implicated papers into one comparison chart, and another amazing thing happened. Almost all of the authors are from different groups, but all of those papers are research on microRNA. All the emails are hosted by 163.com, which is a commercial email host. Two distinctive features of the emails are the first three or four letters, which are representative of the word “doctor” or “manuscript”. All those papers were published in the past years, and even five of those papers were published in the same issue of GMR. Therefore, there must be a third-party scientific ghostwriting company (or companies) behind all those papers, since almost all of these authors come from different groups but have similar features or tricks. Another piece of strong evidence is that some of them were even submitted in the same month to the same journal and published in the same issue, which means that those authors from the different groups never had a chance to plagiarize each other. For example, GMR7480 submitted on August 19, 2015, GMR7656 submitted on September 16, 2015, GMR7730 submitted on September 25, 2015, GMR7935 submitted on October 28, 2015, GMR8077 submitted on November 18, 2015, and GMR8173 submitted on November 27, 2015. Besides, it also means the third-party scientific ghostwriting companies have made tons of money since they wrote these papers in such a short period. The journals also make a lot of money too, by charging an article process fee. Those journal(s) is(are) similar to a blog, but worse, because they make so much money and circulate the garbage papers, polluting the entire scientific literature database.
Those papers are just what we are discovering so far, by starting the investigation of one paper. Since the earliest paper here was published in 2014, we can therefore speculate that the ghostwriter worked earlier on the above-specific content. We strongly believe that more plagiarized papers using those similar pictures can be found, but we are so tired of hunting them down and comparing them all side-by-side. In addition, we are so frustrated that these scientific ghostwriting companies and the predatory journals or publishers targeting Chinese authors have been working hand in glove and so “of the same mind”. We suggest that the Chinese government, university and institute, journals and publishers work to prevent the Chinese research from sliding into the abyss. Meanwhile, Thomson Reuters should also take action, and do something to stop it.
Edited by Lindsey Wayne