Scientists in China reused identical scientific images in more than 120 medical research papers, which ended up in international journals, report says

  • More than 120 research papers from China-based scientists appear to feature the same images, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.
  • The studies were published in international, peer-reviewed journals, raising questions about the checks on scientific research around the world.
  • The trends were discovered by California-based microbiologist Dr. Elizabeth Bik, who said she was worried this was evidence of "paper mill" mass producing academic studies.
  • The findings come as scientists increase their reliance on quickly-produced research as they try to understand and fight the coronavirus.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Scientists in China appear to have used identical images across at least 121 medical research papers that were then published in international, peer-reviewed journals, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, raising questions about the checks on scientific research.

The findings cast doubt on the checks done by international scientific journals, which is particularly concerning as the scientific community attempts to decipher reliable medical reports from shoddy ones to better fight the coronavirus. Data and studies about the virus are currently being produced at speed, forcing journals to find innovative ways to screen material before it's consumed by the public.

According to The Journal, the reports in question, published over a four-year period, were about different topics and by different authors based across multiple universities in China.

But they all shared at least one of the same images with another one of the papers. Many of them included identical images of cell colonies that were rotated differently or cropped in order to appear differently, The Journal reported. The same image captions were also used.

The trends were discovered by scientists including Dr. Elizabeth Bik, a California-based microbiologist, who had tweeted in February: "I am ringing the alarm."

Bik, a former Stanford medical researcher who now investigates research misconduct full-time, said the scientists had discovered more than 400 papers that had "a very similar title layout, graph layout, and (most importantly) the same Western blot layout."

"This is a massive #PaperMill of (what we assume) fabricated data," she wrote, and said she was concerned there might be "hundreds of papers more."

A paper mill is a service that produces a piece of work on behalf of researchers, and is typically considered a form of academic fraud.

Bik, who put her findings in a spreadsheet, told The Journal that paper mills are "polluting the scientific body of work."

"I'm worried they might be the tip of the iceberg."

According to The Journal, the papers passed the review process at six international research journals.

One, The European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, published 113 of the 121 papers, according to The Journal.

The review told The Journal that it would now ask the studies' authors for proof that they had produced the data themselves.

The Journal also contacted the researchers behind the 121 papers. It said that some promised to show their data, and some asked "for more information to check their paper and clear their names."

Some Chinese universities have in the past offered huge monetary rewards for researchers who got their findings published in high-status journals, The Journal reported. It is not clear whether the authors of the 121 papers received monetary awards, and China is taking steps to move away from the practice.

Medical research about the virus is being produced faster than normal in light of the pandemic — going at a speed some researchers say is unprecedented.

And many findings are being published before they've been reviewed by other scientists — allowing more researchers to see and consider their findings, but also potentially spreading information that turns out to have been wrongly arrived at.

And while science is a discipline that has the process of finding out earlier research was incorrect, some critics worry that this new speed could allow too many wrong conclusions and assumptions to be brought into further research into the coronavirus, ultimately forcing health authorities to take the wrong steps to respond.

Richard Horton, the editor of prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, told The New York Times in April that he thinks the pandemic has changed the ways that journals view themselves. 

"We feel very much that we are publishing research that is literally day by day guiding the national and global response to this virus," he said.

"And that is both daunting and full of considerable responsibility, because if we make a mistake in judgment about what we publish, that could have a dangerous impact on the course of the pandemic."

Bik also told The Journal about her worry about inaccurate findings being shared: "Science builds upon science."

"It's sort of this brick wall that builds upon each other. If one of those bricks is not good, that means that the whole wall could collapse."

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