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Exposing a most unscrupulous journal

How one scientist uncovered identity theft, fictitious authors, and plagiarism at a nanoscience publication

by Dalmeet Singh Chawla, special to C&EN
November 19, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 38


An illustration of three fabricated research papers with the false author names circled in red.
Credit: C&EN
Scientists such as Pierre Ruterana, Peter Schwerdtfeger, and Robert Carlyle Pullar were surprised to learn they were listed as authors of papers they had nothing to do with.

Earlier this year, Michael Fischer peer-reviewed a study for a journal, and the publication’s editor copied him on the decision letter and the reviewer reports. Then he came across something odd.

Fischer, a geoscientist at the University of Bremen, noticed that the referee report of another peer reviewer included a long list of suggested citations. Most of the recommended citations were for articles published by a single journal, Experimental and Theoretical Nanotechnology (ET Nano), whose website says it is published by the Arab Science and Technology Foundation.

Michael Fischer.
Credit: Bastian Dincher/University of Bremen
Michael Fischer

Fischer had never heard of ET Nano and decided to check it out. “I was expecting it to basically be some kind of predatory journal” trying to unethically boost its reputation through unwarranted citations, he says.

But when Fischer began to look at ET Nano’s published papers, he was surprised to find that they were authored by prominent and well-known researchers from across the world. He found this strange, given the journal’s relative obscurity. In addition, some researchers weren’t at the universities the journal said they were.

Others, whose affiliations were correct, were listed as authors of papers unrelated to their field of research, Fischer says. The journal also was rife with typographical errors, such as presenting titanium dioxide, or “TiO2,” as “Ti02.” “Nobody would let that pass,” he notes. “Nobody with a science background.”

What Fischer noticed was a mix of fraudulent practices that are typical in so-called predatory journals and more-subtle misbehaviors that are common among even prestigious and widely read publications. For Fischer, ET Nano stuck out because of its brazenness and disregard for good scientific practice.

Nobody would let that pass. Nobody with a science background.
Michael Fischer, geoscientist, University of Bremen

After seeing papers authored by some legitimate and some nonexistent researchers, Fischer decided to reach out to authors he knew to be real. Most of the academics who responded told him the papers listing them as authors were not theirs and that they had never heard of ET Nano. Many of the researchers were also listed as members of its editorial advisory board.

“The papers didn’t seem to match their research profile at all,” Fischer says. “Also, they were often not well written or contained really low-quality figures, which were of very poor resolution.”

Many of the researchers whose identities the journal had misused reached out to ET Nano. In those cases, it removed the falsely signed study from its website but without a formal retraction notice.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a body that publishers and concerned researchers often turn to for guidance on publishing practices, recommends that in almost all cases retracted papers remain online and be watermarked “Retracted.” Retraction notices should also clearly state why papers are retracted and link to the retracted papers.

Citing confidentiality agreements, Fischer declines to name the journal he was originally reviewing for. But, he says, the editor of that publication made a mistake in not disregarding the other peer reviewer’s referee report at face value, as it requested so many nonsensical citations to the same journal.

According to the ET Nano website, its editor in chief, Yarub Al-Douri, was originally at institutions in Turkey. But his listed affiliation changed to the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates after the scientists whose identities had been stolen started trying to reach him. Neither Al-Douri nor ET Nano ’s honorary editor, Munir Nayfeh, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, responded to C&EN’s emailed requests for comment.

Peter Schwerdtfeger.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Peter Schwerdtfeger

Pierre Ruterana, a materials scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and one of the researchers Fischer contacted, confirms that he was falsely listed as being on ET Nano’s editorial advisory board and on a paper on a random topic.

After Ruterana contacted Al-Douri, his name was removed from the board listing and the paper was taken down. Ruterana recalls meeting him more than a decade ago, when Al-Douri visited Marie-Bernadette Lepetit, a colleague of Ruterana’s. “We discussed something [for] like 5 min in my office,” he says.

Ruterana says that ET Nano also listed Lepetit as a member of its editorial board and that her name has since been removed as well.

Another scientist who Fischer contacted, Peter Schwerdtfeger, a theoretical chemist and physicist at Massey University in New Zealand, says the paper listing him as an author was most likely written by software. “When you look carefully through the sentences and the figures, you can clearly see that there is something probably seriously wrong with the paper,” he says.

It’s utter scientific fraud in every way imaginable.
Robert Carlyle Pullar, professor, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

In contrast, Robert Carlyle Pullar of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice says the paper —about microplastics, a topic he has never studied—listing him was plagiarized. “They have stolen another copyrighted paper and put someone else’s name on it,” he says. “It’s utter scientific fraud in every way imaginable.”

Pullar says his concern is not the impact that the improper use of his name might have on his career. “No one will ever see this paper,” he says. “I’m incensed because it’s completely against the principles of scientific publication.”

But Schwerdtfeger wrote to his university provost to inform them of the paper listing him in case somebody files a complaint against him. The fact that his name is on the paper could have “severe consequences,” he says. “This could end my career at the university if someone puts an official complaint in.”

Schwerdtfeger also asked Al-Douri to remove his name from the paper. “The interesting thing is when they removed my name, the paper reappeared with another third name on it,” he says. That new author—who is supposedly based in New Zealand—is fictitious, Schwerdtfeger says.

He thinks the editors are adding false authors to papers to boost ET Nano’s profile. “The more international people on it from other countries, the more legitimate the journal looks,” he says. But since it may contain some real papers, shutting it down may not be the answer, Schwerdtfeger says.

Pullar, who has examined some ET Nano papers, says legitimate ones seem to list authors’ full names, while fake or plagiarized ones use only initials for first and middle names. He also notes that the fake papers tend to list authors from Western nations. And, he says, “every single one of the fraudulent papers has got two or more references to their own journal.”

In cases where papers in ET Nano were copied from other journals, Pullar plans to contact the publishers to inform them of the copyright infringement. He says this includes journals from well-known publishers like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and the Institute of Physics. “I think Elsevier may give a damn about someone infringing their copyright,” Pullar says.

Dalmeet Singh Chawla is a freelance science journalist based in London.


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