It is a truism that the rungs of the career ladder for anyone in a research or higher-education profession are publications in academic literature. The expectations of a paper-spangled CV are applied especially broadly in China, where government policy requires even medical practitioners to conduct research, or at least to publish the results of research (Hvistendahl, 2013).
A predictable outcome of the pressure to publish was the emergence of ‘papermills’: production-line academic ghost-writers who assemble manuscripts for customers who are not in a position to conduct research, due to insufficient time, resources, training or ability (Else & Van Noorden, 2021). A mill might be a single individual producing manuscripts on an artisanal basis (Kalliokoski & Heathers, 2020), or a larger studio of collaborating specialists working on an industrial scale, comparable to a medieval scriptorium, or to the “gold-farming” phenomenon.
In practical terms, “assemble” means “fabricate”, and the livelihood of papermills rests on a steady flow of falsehoods into journals, diluting the results of genuine research and wasting the time of anyone who tries to replicate or build on them. The corrosive impact of papermills on research integrity makes them worthy of attention from a practical perspective. Even bogus papers are cited in review papers, literature reviews and grant proposals when authors read only the titles or abstracts (or references in earlier literature reviews), and find support for their own projects. There is a race between retraction and laundering into general acceptance. Of course papermills are also of interest as an academic topic within the sociology of science, as a phenomenon generated by the interaction between funding systems, market forces, and regrettable central-government policy initiatives.
It is the nature of papermills to be agile, synthesising papers in whichever fields are most active and most highly-prioritised by funding bodies at a given time. Like genuine researchers, they follow the funds. If, for instance, a government prioritises herbal traditions as a medical modality, papermills will oblige with reports promising in-vitro reports for herbal phytochemicals. If laboratories around the world discover the intra-cellular feedback networks of non-coding RNAs, then journals should brace themselves for an onslaught of ncRNA falsification. But at the same time, the consumer base for papermills is dominated by medical clinicians in China who need a publication in an international journal for each promotional milestone, so the hot topic of the day must receive a therapeutic spin.
Here we set out to delineate a single papermill that piggybacks on the popularity of “metal-organic frameworks” (MOFs) or “coordination polymers” (CPs) (Wikipedia, 2022). The mill’s outputs are a curious hybrid of crystallography and medicine, where these fascinating meta-crystalline structures acquire therapeutic applications, so that they meet the requirements of the mill’s clinician customers. CPs gain anaesthetic properties, or kill cancer cells or bacteria, or stop inflammation.
The present paper is descriptive, in the manner of a case study or a report on a new species. It does not offer specific, selective criteria that distinguish all papermill products from authentic science. But despite this narrow scope and modest ambitions, the case study may illustrate some general principles of wider application.
Within the pragmatic field of ‘papermill studies’, one mill was discovered twice. After its repetitive, implausible imitations of Western Blots and flow-cytometric apoptosis assays caught the attention of an ad-hoc collaboration of observers, largely anonymous apart from Dr Elisabeth Bik, it was described on the blogs ‘Science Integrity Digest’ (Bik, 2020), and ‘For Better Science’ (Clyde, 2020). Meanwhile a pursuit of malfeasance in gene-function research led Byrne and Christopher (2020) to the mill’s products independently; they memorably described it as “Digital magic, or the dark arts of the 21st century”. This “tadpole papermill” was initially credited with 400 papers (Bik, 2020), but the tally now exceeds 600 after additional journals came to light that the millers had colonised.
Other papermills have been identified. In Editorials to accompany extensive tranches of retractions, journal editors shared their new awareness of papermill activities, and encouraged others in the industry to take similar defensive measures (Behl, 2021; Seifert, 2021).
A broader perspective may be useful. Despite the scale of papermill activity, the niche they occupy is only one part of a larger ecosystem. The industry of ‘publication facilitation’ also contains predatory / parasitical journals, hijacked journals, software-disguised plagiarism (Cabanac, Labbé & Magazinov, 2021), co-authorship markets, citation trading and extortion, data fabrication, etc. These phenomena are all interconnected, blurring the boundaries between them and hindering any rigorous taxonomy, but their common features are also helpful to us. Specifically, Abalkina’s analysis of hijacked journals is also applicable here.
Abalkina (2021) noted that when a website / journal is set up to mimic a long-established journal (which may be still operating, or no longer extant), offering publication opportunities in exchange for a fee – in other words, when a journal has been hijacked or its identity was stolen – its long-term existence is not assured. Legal repercussions might force the website to disappear. This motivates the proprietors of the journal to maximise their short-term profiles, and to take all possible shortcuts in constructing and operating the imitation. This is not an industry for long-term planning or high standards of workmanship. The imitation will have archives of previous publications, to bolster its pretence of a long illustrious history, but these will be copy-pasted from the archives of other imitation journals from the same perpetrators (see also Siler et al. 2021).
Papermills operate with the same business model of immediate profit extraction, recycling text, tables and other material to save time and effort. Not to forget the favourable reviews that are sometimes passed to journal editors by faked ‘reviewers’, to suborn the peer-review process and facilitate the acceptance of papermilled manuscripts: these can also be recycled (Day, 2022). Figures are yet another manifestation of this urgency.
Different scientific fields have their individual conventions on what kind of images are appropriate as illustrations. In oncology papers, for instance, one might encounter Western Blots and cell-cycle plots; microphotographs of assays of cell migration and invasion; etc. Reading about nanotechnology or material science or the specific application of drug delivery, one expects to see electron microscopy and X-ray diffractograms. All these display examples of an early stage of data collection, still to be quantified and averaged, whereas the summary statistics and the comparisons among these are the substantive contents of the paper. That is, many of the illustrations in biomedical journals provide the reader with no additional information. As early-stage images, they are primarily a token of good faith, to assure the audience that experiments did occur as described, and that (pictorial) data were collected.
Conversely, if experiments were not conducted, the figures must have come from other sources, and often they will be used repeatedly. They might be fake, with no more realism or attention to detail than is necessary, or acquired from elsewhere. Returning to the ‘tadpole’ papermill mentioned above, it received this label due to the stylised, sinuous Western Blots that dominate its figures, resembling tadpoles or sportive sardines. This mill also favoured a hand-stippled form of illustration that were implausible travesties of flow-cytometry scatterplots. We should note the possibility that papermillers may gain access to the image archives of an active laboratory, and can use genuine though re-purposed “out-takes” from that lab’s research to illustrate their confections.
Another convention of academic writing is the References section of a paper, listing sources to support claims made in the text. These can be laborious to prepare, especially if the authors feel obliged to read each reference to check that their vague recollection or second-hand notion of its contents is correct. So just as with the Figures, these References offer opportunities for papermillers to save time and effort by recycling a pre-existing list, unconcerned about the relevance of specific citations in the context of the text. Ideally reviewers would glance at References to check that they are appropriate to the corresponding citations, but the evidence suggests that does not always occur.
The additional possibility that citations are sometimes sponsored should also be considered. We will return to this below.