The Mysterious Phantom Scoop
October 1, 2013 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Fraudulent & hoax manuscripts submitted to academic journals typically present false findings by real authors. This time, however, the paper contains real (and previously unpublished) results... by fake authors. (via retractionwatch)

The fraudulent paper, which appeared in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications [editorial board], reported that overexpression of meteorin (METRNL), a protein previously found to promote the growth and differentiation of neural cells, was found to regulate the growth and differentiation of fat cells -- an association not previously reporteded.

The results themselves aren't necessarily fake: Nature reports that Harvard faculty Bruce Spiegelman, who studies gene regulation in energy metabolism, noticed that the findings bore a striking resemblance to real data he'd presented at a scientific conference. Unlike the typical theft of results, however, the paper's authors -- Alkistis Vezyraki, Stilianos Kapelouzouc, Nikolaos Fotiadisb, Moses S. Theofilogiannakosa, Evridiki Gerou supposedly at the University of Thessaly -- don't exist.

Spiegelman asserts that this was a malicious submission designed to scoop him. But by whom, and why? And how does one address scientific fraud when the authors do not exist?
posted by Westringia F. (24 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
(Both the Nature article and the title of the fradulent paper refer to meteorin and METRNL as "two novel adipokines," but as far as I can tell, METRNL is simply the gene symbol for meteorin.)
posted by Westringia F. at 6:09 AM on October 1, 2013

Dumb question: what would be the concrete benefit of scooping Spiegelman?
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:15 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

And how does one address scientific fraud when the authors do not exist?

By holding publishers accountable for their process? This seems like a pretty basic failure of due diligence rather than symptomatic of some deeper institutional rot.
posted by mhoye at 6:21 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I haven't kept up with the court cases, is the patenting of genes still a thing? Aside from some more personal/academic grudge, that's the only reason I can think of to publish something and not take credit for it. To keep him, or a company he founds/sells to, from patenting a gene regulating fat cells though, that's a bit of a stretch.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:28 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being scooped sucks. Being scooped by GHOSTS is downright scary.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:32 AM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

And who deserve the credit? And who deserve the blame?
posted by camidumas at 6:36 AM on October 1, 2013 [14 favorites]

Dumb question: what would be the concrete benefit of scooping Spiegelman?

Maybe you have a competing grant? Maybe you're both going for the same position. Maybe you just want to be an asshole to the guy? Maybe you want to make it so when his paper comes out no one cares?

I can think of lots of reasons. Most would have to be personal in some manner.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:36 AM on October 1, 2013

And who deserve the credit? And who deserve the blame?

Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevski is his name.
posted by rdone at 6:40 AM on October 1, 2013 [15 favorites]

If the papers present real results, and the submitter is not an insider, then the original author will have already presented those results in some public forum. Should be easy(ish) to establish precedence, no? Especially so, given the paper "authors" won't be available for rebuttal.
posted by Gyan at 6:41 AM on October 1, 2013

An odd detail is that Kapelouzouc, Fotiadisb and theofilogiannakosa all seem to be real names with an extraneous extra letter tacked onto the end: like Smithz, Jonesb and Williamsr.
posted by yoink at 6:52 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dumb question: what would be the concrete benefit of scooping Spiegelman?

This is what happens when you redact the contributions of Dr. W. White from your research...
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:59 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

What an odd case - it should be pretty easy to figure out who did it, and I wouldn't be surprised if Spiegelman had a guess. Unless it's Spiegelman himself, some kind of academic Munchausen syndrome?
posted by muddgirl at 7:00 AM on October 1, 2013

I was expecting a fake scientific paper about a real phantom scoop.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:38 AM on October 1, 2013

Ha! I just discovered how they came up with those three names. Have a look at this genuine article from Clinica Chimica Acta, you'll see that among the authors were a certain Kapelouzou, Fotiadis and Theofilogiannakos. You'll also see that there are footnote superscriptions after their names tying them to their respective institutions: c, b and a. It almost seems like whoever did this wanted to be caught.
posted by yoink at 8:05 AM on October 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

Wow, that's excellent detective work, yoink.

If you cut and pasted those names, the superscripts would show up as ordinary letters added to the ends of the names, and that leads me to think it was carelessness rather than a (conscious) wish to be caught.
posted by jamjam at 8:20 AM on October 1, 2013

that leads me to think it was carelessness

Yeah, but isn't it pretty flagrant carelessness? I mean, those names look funky at a glance (especially "Fotiadisb"). And it looks like all three original names are names of real people working in the field. Surely putting all three together is almost begging for someone to say "hang on, haven't I seen these guys before somewhere--but isn't there something a bit funky with the names?" If whoever was doing this hoax was ignorant enough of the field for this not to strike them as a risk it's hard to imagine how they'd have managed the mechanics of submitting the paper without setting off major alarm bells (did they send it in with a note scrawled in crayon saying "plez pubblish"?). If they were "insider" enough to pull off the hoax (and to get this material from the conference etc.) you'd think they'd be "insider" enough to see those names as a pretty big red flag.

Then again, the editors clearly didn't catch the names, so maybe they just knew the sloppiness of the editors only too well?
posted by yoink at 8:43 AM on October 1, 2013

Maybe this is an attempt to highlight the sloppy practices at Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications? But why at Spiegelman's expense?
posted by hat_eater at 9:27 AM on October 1, 2013

The forgers copied and pasted some of the authors from this genuine article, not knowing or caring that the subscripted letters came along for the ride. It doesn't mean that Kapelouzou et al were involved in this article.
posted by jepler at 9:32 AM on October 1, 2013

Spiegelman, who works on fat-cell differentiation, is also a co-founder of Ember Therapeutics, a company based in Watertown, Massachusetts, that is developing therapeutics for metabolic disorders. He believes that the paper was intended to hurt him and his lab
A researcher working on fat-cell differentiation who has a company named Ember is probably working on ways to activate or reactivate brown fat in adults, and if he succeeds, he'll have essentially a 'cure' for most obesity, and a license to print any and all currencies of his choosing-- if he can patent it.

Spiegelman filed patents related to the plagiarized work before making the presentations which were the basis for the fraudulent article, so there's no way the fraud could keep him from getting a patent, but if it had gone undetected long enough, it might have delayed the issuance of a patent by necessitating further investigation to ensure that no prior public disclosure had taken place, and that could be to the advantage of anyone who was working on ways of using brown fat to treat obesity that weren't covered by Spiegelman's patent application.
posted by jamjam at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2013

This comment on retractionwatch is curious.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:33 AM on October 1, 2013

The more I think about this, the stranger I find it.

Whoever submitted the fraudulent article would have gained little for themselves; the best they could do would be to block Spiegelman publishing the same result. So -- assuming rationality -- who would have the motivation?

An academic competitor? Vanishingly unlikely, I think. They can't claim credit for the finding themselves, so they have nothing to gain directly (Spiegelman not getting a publication doesn't help their CVs/grants/&c). And they'd have a lot to lose if discovered.

A business competitor? Also unlikely, considering that whoever submitted it knew the findings had been presented publicly (since that's how they got them!) and would therefore no longer be patentable. (They may or may not have been aware that Spiegelman had filed a patent before presenting the results.) As with the academic competitor, the best they could possibly do is screw Spiegelman, but they wouldn't gain much themselves.

Spiegelman himself? Doubtful, again. The only possible way (that I can imagine) for it to work to his advantage would be by claiming to potential financial backers that the idea is so hot that it's being stolen. If that's what one were to do, one would almost have to do it like this: using a pseudonym to avoid harming someone else's real career, and making the bogosity detectable enough that one could believably "catch" the theft. But that also makes for a pretty unconvincing ruse: if it's hot enough to steal, why wasn't it stolen by someone who would claim credit rather than using a pseudonym that would sink any hope of profit/fame? and why would it have gone to a low-impact journal? Worse, if the truth came out, it would backfire BIGTIME -- pretty much ending any academic OR business career -- and calling out the "theft" & insisting on an investigation would be begging for the cover to be blown. I can't imagine this would pass anyone's risk/benefit analysis.

Or: a scared would-be whistleblower? Let's imagine for a second that the concerns raised on PubPeer & RetractionWatch (and on In the Pipeline) about irreproducible results and potentially manipulated images were shared by a junior researcher on this project. Such an individual might find themselves faced with a very hard decision: make an accusation against the well-respected researcher who controls their professional future, or put their name on a paper with results they don't believe in. If the result gets scooped, though, they're off the hook: they don't have to submit it or confront their boss. So they Lobachevsky themselves: write a paper with fake names (so as not to hurt anyone else), sloppily and hurriedly submit it to a journal with a quick turn-around, and then... aw, shucks. It would be compounding one fraud with another, but to someone desperate enough, it might look like a way out.

Of course, there's always the possibility of a crazy person with an axe to grind being wantonly malicious. I find it pretty hard to believe, but this is academia, and the stakes are so low....
posted by Westringia F. at 6:53 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Looks like the paper Yoink found includes all of the scrambled first and last names of co-authors except for Vezyraki, Moses S., Evridiki, and Gerou.

Here's a paper which includes Moses S. Elisaf and Patra Vezyraki as co-authors, both from the University of Ioannina. Here's one by Spyridon Gerou and Evridiki Papadopoulou, both from companies (institutes?) in Thessaloniki. Could be a coincidence, of course. I don't really have a feel for how common these names are. But, it does look like they were working from a list of real Greek researchers in related fields.

It seems weird that someone would go to the trouble to look up regionally appropriate names from multiple sources, carefully scramble them, and then accidentally paste affiliations without noticing it. But, I suppose that's not nearly as weird as taking the time to write an entire coherent paper based on fake or stolen data! That assumes, of course, that the text and figures weren't also stolen. (Text from the abstract doesn't show up in any search engine I know about.) Seems like Spiegelman would have mentioned if the text itself came from one of his group's papers as well. It seems astonishing that someone capable of writing the paper - assuming it's actually convincing, and not a case of referees asleep on the job and embarrassed editors making excuses - would be so sloppy about the authors list.

I'd love to find a copy of the article to continue to look for more clues and red herrings. If anyone's managed to dig up a copy, please let me know.

Damn. And my original reading of "Evridiki Gerou" as a transliterated version of "ridiculous generated" in some language sounded almost plausible. Whoever's behind this ARG isn't giving us much to work with.
posted by eotvos at 9:06 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The forgers copied and pasted some of the authors from this genuine article, not knowing or caring that the subscripted letters came along for the ride. It doesn't mean that Kapelouzou et al were involved in this article.

Has anyone suggested otherwise?
posted by yoink at 7:31 AM on October 2, 2013

Yoink, I initially misinterpreted your earlier comment as saying the names were the slightly mangled names of the authors who wanted to be caught.
posted by jepler at 9:30 AM on October 2, 2013

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