An international group of scientists, some seemingly well-credentialed, have been publishing prolifically in obscure scientific journals, accruing hundreds of co-authorships over the past several years.
The only problem: most of the studies they publish don’t make any sense.
One paper, titled “5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells,” was retracted in late July after it received widespread criticism from scientists on social media for being shoddy pseudoscience. The diagrams featured clipart, and one showed two vertical arrows labeled “Tower” casting what the authors label as “Milimeter waves [sic]” and “Radio waves” onto a cell. An arrow exits from the cell and points at a drawing of a virus, which has been labeled “COVID-19.”
After that paper was retracted, the journal posted a notice on its original landing page saying that the article “showed evidence of substantial manipulation of the peer review.”
Of the hundreds of publications put out by these authors, at least a dozen contain the same kinds of fantastical claims. Many have been published in lesser-known journals: the 5G paper, for instance, was published in the Journal of Biological Regulators & Homeostatic Agents, which claims on its website that all studies are peer-reviewed. Another set of papers with titles such as, “DNA Waves and Their Applications in Biology,” and “A Black Hole at the Center of Earth Plays the Role of the Biggest System of Telecommunication for Connecting DNAs, Dark DNAs and Molecules of Water on 4+N- Dimensional Manifold” were published in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, an open access journal that offers peer review for some of its content, though it is unclear whether these papers went through peer review.
After Motherboard reached out to the editor of the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, five articles were retracted the next day. The editor did not respond to our request for comment.
The authors' public profiles range from essentially non-existent to seemingly normal; some have institutional affiliations and co-edit a journal from a major academic publisher. Interviews with the co-authors, representatives from journals, and experts in scientific fraud did little to clarify a confusing web of motives for why these bizarre papers exist. To the extent that they are meant to criticize the academic process, the authors seem to take issue with the very existence of peer review. They also indicate genuine belief in what they’re publishing. The papers go beyond the stated expertise of their authors in many instances, and they’ve involved decapitating birds and growing bacteria in milk.
Regardless of intent, these papers speak to failures across the board—on behalf of both the authors and the journals.
“I'm just baffled by this,” said Elisabeth Bik, a science consultant who focuses on research integrity. “I cannot really place this into a particular category other than a bunch of people who love to publish, no matter what it is.”
Two of the leading figures of this monumental effort in publishing pseudoscience are Massimo Fioranelli and Torello Lotti. Fioranelli is a cardiologist by training according to his website, and his affiliation is with Guglielmo Marconi University’s department of nuclear, sub-nuclear and radiation physics. Lotti is a dermatologist. Both are co-authors of the 5G paper and have published prolifically; Fioranelli has been an author on over 100 papers according to PubMed, a resource that catalogues research, and Lotti has published over 100 articles indexed on PubMed this year alone.
There are a handful of other collaborators involved in this group, including Uwe Wollina—chief doctor of dermatology at Städtische Klinikum Dresden, an academic teaching hospital in Germany—and Alireza Sepehri, who was formerly affiliated with an Iranian astronomy and astrophysics institute.
Lotti is the editor in chief of Dermatologic Therapy, a journal published by Wiley, a major publisher of academic journals and textbooks. Fioranelli is a section editor for the journal, and Wollina is an associate editor. Other co-authors associated with the pseudoscientific papers—and Lotti—have co-authored dozens of Letters to the Editor in the journal. Many of these letters at least tangentially relate to the field of dermatology, but others, including “Predatory journals: The silent intruder” and “COVID‐19: A relationship to climate and environmental conditions?” do not. A Wiley spokesperson said that scientific content for a journal like Dermatologic Therapy is accepted based on the journal’s scope and aim, as decided by its editor in chief.
Most of this group’s papers are indexed in PubMed, meaning that they are published in a journal recognized by either MEDLINE or PMC, two databases each with their own vetting processes. Inclusion in either of these archives yields credibility to papers and authors that do not always deserve it, said Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of the blog and database Retraction Watch.
“We don't know anything about these people, and they don't talk to anyone,” Oransky said.
Fioranelli did not respond to requests for comment; however, Roxanna Sadoughifar, an associate editor of Dermatologic Therapy, replied to a request sent to Lotti. She wrote that “[i]n the most advanced niches of the international scientific community there is a hilarious reaction” to interview requests sent to Lotti and other collaborators.
"We're not surprised by your interest in such a creative, challenging, and hyperbolic mind always thinking out of the box… Only scandals can open the eyes of the Communities and stigmatize hypocrisy, in his opinion,” she wrote, adding that Lotti has given presentations on publishing fake and fabricated papers to draw attention to flaws in the peer review system.
Sadoughifar did not respond to a follow-up request for comment. Later, however, Lotti himself replied and sent along slides for a presentation he claimed to have given in Warsaw in 2019 titled “Evidence Based Medicine—Who are you?” Twenty-six of the presentation’s 29 slides are lifted almost word-for-word from the Wikipedia page for evidence-based medicine, in the same order.
“At some point when you test the system, you come out and you write a blog post, or something else about it”
Lotti said in an interview that he takes issue with evidence-based medicine and peer review as he believes it limits free discourse. He added that the scientific community requires “a big scandal” to course correct, which is why he co-authored many of these studies.
"Those papers which created the scandal, in my opinion were just designed—at least in my mind—for the scandal. This is not the opinion of Professor Fioranelli,” Lotti said.
On Lotti’s Instagram account, however, the dermatologist has spread coronavirus conspiracy theories and posted a screenshot of the 5G coronavirus paper with the caption “data & hypotheses.” Lotti did not respond to specific questions about these posts.
Testing publishing, or gaming it?
Researchers occasionally test the peer review system by publishing bunk research to demonstrate the ways in which it is flawed, and a few high-profile stunts have garnered attention. Unlike those instances, however, Bik said she was skeptical that such a test was underway here.
“I think they're really convinced that they're writing science,” Bik said. “I might be wrong: maybe they are testing the system, and I fell for it. But at some point when you test the system, you come out and you write a blog post, or something else about it.”
Moreover, publishing a fake paper about a coronavirus conspiracy theory to test peer review would be irresponsible since people may take it as evidence in support of that theory, even if it is meant as a laughably bad caricature of a scientific paper, she added.
Asked whether he sees any issues with publishing papers that feed into documented conspiracy theories, regardless of motive, Lotti said that the content of the 5G paper on which he is a co-author is “a topic for Professor Fioranelli” and “not my issue.”
Aliezra Sepehri, another collaborator who has co-authored dozens of pseudoscientific papers, seemed to tell a different story about the group’s motives in an email sent as a reply to an interview request for Fioranelli, indicating that he believes the group's work to be genuine scholarship.
Sepehri wrote that he, along with Fioranelli and the other co-authors, have proposed "new insights" in "connecting biology with [the evolution] of the universe." He described the work as being "under attack."
In a response to follow-up questions, Sepehri doubled down on the disproven claim that 5G technology is harmful to humans, adding that such (nonexistent) damage could cause the spontaneous creation of a virus.
Bik said she started looking into Sepehri a year ago, after she saw some strange manuscripts posted on the preprint server viXra—a backwards spelling of arXiv, another preprint server. viXra is explicitly designed to circumvent arXiv's moderation guidelines, which include filtering out papers that contain “inflammatory or fictitious content” or ones that are submitted at an “excessive” rate.
The paper that caught Bik’s eye was titled “The Role of Radiated Non-Linear Electromagnetic Waves from Initial Dnas in Formation of the Little Brain, Neural Circuits and Other Decision Centers: Determining Time of Death by Considering Evolutions of Waves of Death.” In it, Sepehri measured something (it is unclear what, as his charts are unlabeled) after decapitating quails, including graphic photos of the process.
In that manuscript, Sepehri listed an affiliation with the Research Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics of Maragha, in Iran; however, after Bik published a thread on Twitter and a related blog post on Sepehri, the institute confirmed that Sepehri had previously worked there but was not employed at the time that paper and others were posted.
Asked whether he wanted to respond to the content of Bik’s blog post, Sepehri wrote, “I try to ignore these attacks. These attacks were always [levied] against scientists in history. For example, Galileo was under this type of attack.” He did not respond to a follow-up question asking about his current institutional affiliation.
'We're all so tired'
If the purpose of the collaboration is to test the peer review system, despite Sepehri's seeming earnestness and self-comparison to Galileo, it doesn’t seem like journals (except Lotti's own) are in on it.
Several of the group’s nonsensical papers were published in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences as part of a special issue on global dermatology, even though none of the papers had anything to do with dermatology. When reached for comment, the editor of the journal requested that questions be sent over email, but did not respond to a follow-up email with questions. The next day, however, five of the studies were retracted and amended with a note.
“An internal investigation has raised sufficient evidence that they are not directly connected with the special issue Global Dermatology and contain inconsistent results,” reads a portion of the retraction notice. “As such, we retract these articles from the literature and by guidelines and best editorial practices from the Committee on Publication Ethics. We apologize to our audience about this unfortunate situation.”
“They're telling us to trust them, and they're not doing what's necessary to be trusted”
A Wiley spokesperson said that the publisher was aware that some editorial board members of Dermatologic Therapy published papers that were subsequently retracted, but declined to comment on the retractions.
Lotti’s tenure as editor of the journal is set to end at the end of the calendar year, Wiley confirmed, and that a search is underway for a new editor in chief.
“As we have said previously, we’re also grateful for everyone who contributes to maintaining accuracy in published science. That includes editors, peer reviewers, researchers like Dr. Elisabeth Bik who scrutinize the science, and news outlets that monitor and report issues. Safeguarding the public’s trust in science takes all of us working together,” the spokesperson added.
In general, Oransky said that publishers like Wiley want their journals to be seen as credible, but often there is not sufficient oversight of the thousands of journals a publisher might oversee to guarantee credibility.
“They're telling us to trust them, and they're not doing what's necessary to be trusted,” he said.
Bik said that this group’s ability to publish prolifically speaks to two failures: one rests on the authors for submitting pseudoscientific papers, whatever the reason, while the other belongs to the journals that accepted the papers. She has a special distinction for authors like these, where scientific fraud is perhaps present but highly convoluted: “Fantastic authors and where to find them.”
Similarly, Oransky said this group is far from mainstream, and one whose impact may be dwarfed by other instances of scientific malpractice.
“In the big scheme of things, I'm much more worried about the questionable research that's in the big journals about COVID than I am about what really does look like fringe. There's always going to be someone who does this, and there's always going to be a group of people who latch on to it, because it's the conspiracy theory that works for them,” he said.
“I'm not saying that's a good thing by any stretch—I think it's terrible—but we're all so tired.”