Working Hand in Glove: Scientific Ghostwriting Company and the Predatory Journal Targeting Chinese Authors

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%).

Matching Summary Software Support: iPlagiarism

Matching Summary
Software Support: iPlagiarism

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.

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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”.

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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”.

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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”.

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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”.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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

6 Comments

  1. From: Ian RD
    Subject: Follow up on the post regarding plagiarism of Chinese authors

    Hi Editors,

    I am writing to express my sincere appreciation for your work on investigating the plagiarism of Chinese authors.

    In my humble opinion, what you discovered may just be the tip of an iceberg. I discovered similar issues earlier this year regarding two papers published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy and Tumor Biology. I have contacted the Editor-in-Chief of the two journals. However, they never replied me, nor investigated the issue further.

    Below please find my email to the Editor-in-Chief, along with the specific issues regarding the papers.

    On Tue, May 31, 2016 at 7:55 PM, Ian RD wrote:
    Dear Dr. Stigbrand,

    I am writing this email to report a possible misconduct regarding a paper published in Tumor Biology (TB), in which you serve as the editor-in-chief. The paper is entitled “miR-143 inhibits tumor progression by targeting FAM83F in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma”, and was published on January 13, 2016 (doi:10.1007/s13277-015-4760-9).

    This manuscript is highly similar to another paper published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy (B&P) entitled “MiR-1290 promotes cancer progression by targeting nuclear factor I/X(NFIX) in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC)” (doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2015.10.005). These two papers are authored by a same group of authors, and were submitted to the two different journals on the same date (Aug. 22, 2015), as per information provided on the papers.

    In particular, these two papers contain large amount of verbatim texts, with the only difference being the name of the miRNA of interest (miR-1290 vs. miR-143). For example, a part of the abstract of the B&P paper (“Since microRNA … to regulate FAM83F expression”) is almost identical to the abstract of the TB paper (“Since microRA … to regulate NFIX expression”). The Material and Methods and Result sections are highly similar between the two papers, with a lot of verbatim sentences. Such act may constitutes self-plagiarism and may not be tolerated in a highly reputable journal like Tumor Biology.

    More seriously, I noticed that a number of figure panels are identical between the two papers, which suggests that the authors may falsified the figures or used the same data to support two different conclusions. For example, the Figure 6B, 7B, and 8B are exactly the same between the two papers, even for the error bars. Such act of possible data falsification or re-use without proper reference should also not be tolerated in your journal.

    Taken together, I found a number of red flags for scientific misconduct in the aforementioned paper. I was wondering if you, as the editor-in-chief, and the Journal could formally look into this matter, and take appropriate actions regarding this paper if necessary. I included the links to the two papers for your reference.

    TB paper: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13277-015-4760-9
    B&P paper: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332215300688

    Thanks for your attention and all the best,

    Ian RD

    ***End of the email***

    It would be appreciated if you could investigate this issue further and expose such act, which seriously violated academic ethics.

    Thanks and best regards,

    Ian RD


    This e-mail was sent from a contact form on Plagiarism Watch (http://plagiarismwatch.org)

  2. Great discovery! Thanks.

  3. It is time for Chinese researchers to rethink about their motivation.

  4. At least Plagiarism screening software was supposed to be employed by authors, corresponding authors, editorial stuff of journals, and publishers. It seems that the iPlagiarism is better than the rest software as so many cases have been found.

  5. Hi, there,
    My name is ….., reporter from China’s Xinhua News Agency, the largest media in China. The report your website published Wednesday, titled Working Hand in Glove: Scientific Ghostwriting Company and the Predatory Journal Targeting Chinese Authors, apparently was a shock to many Chinese. I have two quick questions about this scandal. Thank you.
    (1) A Chinese scientific blogger said you may have found what could be “the largest ghostwriting company engaged in producing English papers in the world history of science,” do you agree? why?
    (2)Could you comment on the impact of the scandal on Chinese scientific research?

    Thank you.
    Best,
    ……
    9.21

    • (1) A Chinese scientific blogger said you may have found what could be “the largest ghostwriting company engaged in producing English papers in the world history of science,” do you agree? why?

      Yes, we would agree with that. It is absolutely true that we’ve never heard of any news reporting the amount of ghostwriting scientific papers more than what we have found. The amount may also be much more than this, since it’s a very time-consuming endeavor to hunt them all down and compare them side-by-side. As for what we found and presented in the blog, we have never seen that at least five Chinese-authored papers with similar images could be published in one issue of one single SCI journal. Therefore, we believe this to be the largest scandal of the scientific ghostwriting company, and of the predatory journal or publisher targeting Chinese authors being so “of the same mind” in the world history of science.

      (2) Could you comment on the impact of the scandal on Chinese scientific research?

      We believe that Chinese researchers have been working extremely hard, and we respect their work, but the truth disclosed by this report suggests that Chinese authors may be becoming the intentional targets of the scientific ghostwriting company and the predatory journal or publisher, because they might recognize what the Chinese authors expect. It’s so weird that the Chinese government, institutions, and researchers don’t seem to like using the anti-plagiarism software, which could greatly help them in discovering this potential plagiarism before submission. And even after submission, the anti-plagiarism software may still work to find the plagiarized paper, and this kind of scandal could be killed as soon as possible. Personally, we would step forward and offer a friendly suggestion to the Chinese to use iPlagiarism software, since we have found that it is the best globally, and as you can see, we make ample use of this software too,and we’ve discovered many plagiarized papers in doing so. In this case (http://plagiarismwatch.org/?p=1203), you can find the comment at the bottom of the webpage by Martyn Rittman, Chief Production Editor from MDPI, which is one of the largest publishers. In that comment, he acknowledged that MDPI used another software to screen papers, but failed to find any plagiarism in that particular paper. However, we used iPlagiarism to screen the same paper, and detected the plagiarism quite a lot. We expect that the Chinese government, institution and researchers can all be more responsible and serious, in order to prevent and remove plagiarism in scientific papers going forward.

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