Most posts on this website are about duplications within or between figures in the same paper, or about duplications found between papers by the same group of authors. But now, our small group of image forensics detectives has come across a large set of papers – over 400 as of today – from different authors and affiliations that all appear to have been generated by the same source. Based on the resemblance of the Western blot bands to tadpoles (the larval stage of an amphibian, such as a frog or a toad), we will call this the Tadpole Paper Mill.
Paper mills are such a blight on the scientific record that have real potential to damage scientific understanding, professional practice, consumer safety and community faith in research. This piece by the thoroughly great Elizabeth Bik provides a primer on paper mills, dives into how to spot them and why we all need to stamp them out.
What is a paper mill?
A paper mill is a shady company that produces scientific papers at demand. They sell these papers to e.g. medical doctors in China who need to have a scientific paper published in an international journal in order to get their MD, but who do not have any time in their educational program to actually do research. Authorships on ready-to-submit or already-accepted papers are sold to medical students for hefty amounts, as described e.g. by Mara Hvistendahl in ‘China’s Publication Bazaar‘ in Science, 2013. Whether or not the experiments described in these papers has actually been performed is not clear. Some of these paper mills might have laboratories producing actual images or results, but such images might be sold to multiple authors to represent different experiments. Thus, the data included in these papers is often falsified or fabricated.