Chinese Hospital Sanctioned at Least 35 Scientists for Research Misconduct

Adam Marcus

September 07, 2022

Retractions are rolling along for numerous scientists affiliated with the Jining First People's Hospital in Shandong, China, who were sanctioned in December for research misconduct such as tampering with data and fabricating research.

For example, one article, "Lycium barbarum polysaccharides alleviates oxidative damage induced by H2O2 through down-regulating microRNA-194 in PC-12 and SH-SY5Y cells," which appeared in Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry in 2018, was retracted on August 31.

The retraction notice stated:

The article "Lycium Barbarum Polysaccharides Alleviates Oxidative Damage Induced by H2O2 Through Down-Regulating MicroRNA-194 in PC-12 and SH-SY5Y Cells" [Cell Physiol Biochem 2018;50:460–472. DOI: 10.1159/000494159] by Tong Niu, Liuzhong Jin, Shizhen Niu, Cunqi Gong and Hui Wang has been retracted by the current and former Publishers and the Editor.
In 2020, concerns were raised about the integrity of the data presented in the article. Following an investigation by the journal into the concerns, an Expression of Concern was published:
Recently, the results of an investigation by the authors' institution were published, details can be found here:
The published results of the investigation indicate that evidence of misconduct was identified within the article. The authors' institution did not respond to our request to provide more detail about the results of the investigation and the authors did not respond to our request to comment on the results of the investigation within the specified timeframe. Therefore, based on the institution's findings, the article is being retracted.
The authors did not respond to our correspondence about the retraction of this article.

The expression of concern gave a little more detail about the journal's investigation:

After the publication of this article, concerns were raised about the integrity of some of the data presented. The authors responded to our request for the raw data but did not provide the complete dataset. The authors were unresponsive to follow-up correspondence within the given timeframe. The matter has been raised to the corresponding author's institution who has not responded to our correspondence. Readers should thus interpret the data presented in the article with caution. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once the investigation is concluded.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. In a lengthy report (in Chinese) published on Dec. 29, 2021, hospital administrators described the sanctions they've imposed against the authors of 15 papers that appeared in various journals.

The researchers, who represent different departments within the hospital, generally have been barred from applying for any grants for five to six years and from serving on grant review committees for a similar length of time. Their paths to promotion were also halted for at least one and sometimes multiple years.

In almost every case, hospital researchers collaborated with colleagues at other institutions. In some cases administrators at the other institutions imposed similar sanctions regarding applying for new grants and delaying promotions, according to the report.

In other cases, the report stated, these institutions publicly admonished researchers but did nothing else. Jining Hospital administrators, on the other hand, formally disciplined every researcher linked to publication fraud at their hospital.

Of the 15 papers in the report, six have been retracted, six have expressions of concern, and three are unmarked. (Search "Jining First People's Hospital" in the affiliations field of ourdatabase for the current tally.)

For one article out of the 15, hospital administrators explicitly requested that the corresponding author ask the journal to issue a retraction. That article, "Baicalein inhibits proliferation and migration of bladder cancer cell line T24 by down-regulation of microRNA-106," was published in 2018 in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy and retracted in August 2020.

The retraction notice indicated the paper had been identified as part of a paper mill:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief. A panel from Figure 2A appears similar to a panel from Figure 6C of the article published by Qiu Hong Rui, Jian Bo Ma, Yu Feng Liao, Jin Hua Dai and Zhen Yu Cai in the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 52(4) (2019) e7728
Also, panels from Figure 4F appear similar to panels from Figure 6C of the article published by the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 52(4) (2019) e7728 and Figure 2B of the article published by Jin Zhou, Hao Li, Na Li, Xiangpan Li, Huibo Zhang, Qibin Song and Min Peng in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pathology 10(8) (2017) 8211–8221
The journal also requested a response from the corresponding author on the post-publication comments of Dr Elisabeth Bik but did not receive a response.
Although this article was published earlier than the article from the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, the Editor decided to retract this article given the concerns on the reliability of the data. Also, one of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original. As such this article represents an abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

The article's corresponding author, Hongbo Guo of the Jining First People's Hospital, did not reply to a request for comment, nor did the hospital's administrators. The report states that Guo was forbidden from applying for grants or serving on grant review committees for five years, and was delayed from seeking a promotion for one year.

Ten of the problematic papers from the Jining First People's Hospital report were on the list for the "Tadpole" paper mill, which is a collaborative effort between Bik and others who use pseudonyms.

Adam Marcus, a cofounder of Retraction Watch, is an editor at Medscape.