The Bottom of the Barrel of Science Fraud

By Neuroskeptic | November 30, 2017 11:16 am

Sometimes, scientific misconduct is so blatant as to be comical. I recently came across an example of this on Twitter. The following is an image from a paper published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C:


As pointed out on PubPeer, this image – which is supposed to be an electron microscope image of some carbon dot (CD) nanoparticles – is an obvious fake. The “dots” are identical, and have clearly been cut-and-pasted. Where one copy has been placed over the top of another, the overlap is quite visible.

It would be charitable to even call this ‘scientific’ fraud.

The Journal of Materials Chemistry editors said on Twitter that they are “urgently” looking into this paper; I’ve no doubt it will be retracted soon, although the fact that it was published at all raises questions about the peer-review standards of this journal.

To me as a neuroscientist, cases like this from chemistry get me worried. In a field like materials chemistry, or any field in which results take the form of images or photographs (such as Western blots), low-effort fraud is easy to spot because the manipulation of an image can, at least in unsubtle cases, be easily proven from the image itself.

But what of fields like psychology or neuroscience where data don’t take the form of images? Perhaps low-effort frauds occur in these fields as well, but it is much more difficult to detect them when the results are statistical rather than pictorial in nature.

(An aside: neuroscience has plenty of images, e.g. fMRI maps, but I’ve never heard of a case of someone manipulating neuroimages. I’ve heard researchers joke about being tempted to “add some blobs in MS Paint”, but I’m not aware of this actually happening. A fraudster wouldn’t need to manipulate neuroimages directly, however, because these images are usually depicitions of statistics, not actual pictures, so fiddling the underlying data would be enough.)

There are many statistical tools for detecting fraud and I’ve blogged about some of these before. But these methods don’t directly show fraud. They can warn us that a certain set of data are extremely unlikely to be real, but they usually can’t show how the fraud was performed – unlike images which show us that e.g. copy-pasting was done (although see). And these tools are only applied when suspicion has been raised about a certain dataset, whereas with image manipulation, it can be immediately visible in the picture.

So, my worry is that psychology and neuroscience might have its own share of “copy-pasted carbon dots”, and no-one would ever know.

I’m not suggesting that this is a common problem; I think the vast majority of researchers are not frauds, and I think there are bigger systemic problems in science. It’s more a matter of pride. If I’m going to get fooled by a fraud, I’d want them to at least be a good fraud.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • smut clyde

    This particular team certainly aren’t the only offenders in the material-science / nanotech field, churning out weird alchemical fantasies and making up charts as if they had conducted experiments. And the editors of these journals are happy to accept them, despite knowing that they’re bogus. I can only suspect that if they threw out the obvious forgeries then they wouldn’t have enough material to fill the journals and the publishers’ business model would suffer.

    Does anyone *read* these journals? (from Elsevier, and Springer, and Royal Soc. Chem, and Am.Chem.Soc.). Or are they forced on libraries as part of subscription bundles so that the universities have to pay for them as well if they want access to legitimate journals?

  • Uncle Al

    Whenever the performance bar is lowered to the floor, there will be discovered a basement – carbon copy carbon dots.

    “Santanu Patra, Raksha Choudhary, Ekta Roy, Rashmi Madhuri, Prashant K. Sharma” Cf: Panchagavya cancer-curing, skin-lightening, and other benefits from mixed cow dung, urine, milk, curd, ghee; jaggery, banana, tender coconut, and water.

    Properly pronounce YHWH (the tetragrammaton, יהוה) to end the universe. The “hataf patakh” (evidence of Klingon visitation?) alone is 3000+ years of hot debate. A digital voder could terminate Global Warming.

    …Cheat sheet. Is there a sub-basement?

    • Rogerblack

      doi: 10.1016/j.jflm.2017.07.014 I question many things about this paper deep in the subbasement, including the title.
      Even indexed in pubmed.

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  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    Academic fraud has been a serious problem for a long tome. Ask anyone who has worked with the NIH Office of research integrity. It,s actually much LESS of a problem in psychology since it’s mostly culturally dependent psychobabble without any results that truly generalize outside the very isolated ( and generally biased) population group from which they were collected.

  • smut clyde

    There’s some tough competition for the title of “Laziest, most flagrant Photoshopped nanotech papers”.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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