12 Aug 2015

iMed Publishing fell for Bohannon's chocolate hoax, but that's not the worst thing about them

The first introduction to iMed Publishing (iMed.pub) for most people was not a good one.

In October 2013, John Bohannon — a self-styled 'gonzo journalist' — announced that he had pulled off a sting of dodgy open access journal publishers by submitting a made-up article and seeing which took the bait  and many did. This triggered a debate about OA, peer review, and publishing ethics, as well as Bohannon's tactics.

On 26 March 2015, International Archives of Medicine published a small German clinical trial showing that eating dark chocolate can help in losing weight (article now removed but archived). Not that many people noticed: a few people tweeted the link, and the story was covered by some low-quality science and health news sites that are effectively mirrors of press releases and a handful of tabloid newspapers — most notably the British Daily Mail, Express, and Daily Star, and the German gossipmonger Bild (Google News search; Google search).

Bohannon had struck again.

This time, with two German documentary makers, he'd had an even more audacious plan: to hoodwink lazy journalists — churnalists — by running a real clinical trial, fiddling the stats, and publishing it in an apparently peer-reviewed journal. As 'Johannes Bohannon' of the 'Institute of Diet and Health' in Mainz he submitted his study to 20 journals; of those that took the bait he selected the International Archives of Medicine, who had agreed to publish without peer review, and he then press released it.

On 27 May 2015, Bohannon did the big reveal of his #chocolatehoax on the news site io9. Many got the impression that Bohannon had indeed fooled millions into believing a clever lie; Bild published a retraction notice, and Mother Nature Network confessed “Well, this is embarrassing. Turns out this 'study' was a stunt to see who was paying attention — and we weren't.” The focus in the science communication world largely turned to whether the trial and the reporting of it by Bohannon was unethical.

The publisher of the journal, iMed.pub, tried some rather desperate damage control; iMed.pub told me on Twitter “That article has never been published” and said in a disclaimer on their website that the paper “accidentally appeared online for some days. Indeed that manuscript was finally rejected and never published as such.” They accused Bohannon of lying: “what the pseudo-author was claiming is false”. The article was available until 27 May; is two months “some days”? Nobody was convinced and the blog Retraction Watch took this claim to task. Few asked: “Who are the International Archives of Medicine and iMed Publishing, anyway?”, but I was intrigued as I had heard of iMed.pub and their journals before — what was going on?


So who are iMed.pub? International Archives of Medicine (IAM) was formerly published by BioMed Central (BMC) from April 2008 to December 2014, under the Editor-in-Chief Manuel Menendez-Gonzalez of Universidad Oviedo. For the avoidance of doubt, BMC (my former employer) had nothing to do with the Bohannon paper. For on 31 December 2014 the International Archives of Medicine was sold to iMed.pub, and in February 2015 a relaunch was announced. Within months, IAM and iMed.pub would have its first major scandal: publishing the Bohannon chocolate hoax.

iMed Publishing (Internet Medical Publishing or iMed.pub) would like to be known as “the fastest growing publishing house on the net”, an open access publisher based in London, UK, publishing seven journals and affiliated to the Fundación de Neurociencias and the Internet Medical Society. iMedPub Limited is a company registered in the United Kingdom (company number 08776635, though 2,215 companies also use the same address as iMed.pub, likely a mail forwarding service). iMed.pub and their associated organizations seem to trace back to two Spanish clinical researchers: CEO Carlos Vázquez and the director of iMed.pub and the Editor-in-Chief of IAM, Manuel Menendez-Gonzalez.

Publishing Bohannon's hoax is not the only suspect act made by iMed.pub.

A tangled web

The founders of iMed.pub have been busy. Alongside the journal publishing wing — including the Open Journal of Medicine (publishing only 10 papers since 2011 and none this year) — there are:
publishopenaccess.com - a mirror site for iMed.pub
Fundaciónde Neurociencias
Internet Medical Society
Asociación Española de Médicos Internos Residentes (AEMIR)
A tonne of blogs, and some more
Various traces and abandoned sites around the web, including some old Twitter archives

The connections are not always openly declared. For example, Carlos Vázquez announced on Facebook that “We have partnered with peereviewers.com so we have an extra database of reviewers available to find suitable reviewers for manuscripts submitted to International Archives of Medicine http://www.peereviewers.com”. The relaunch of IAM also gave the impression of independence. Two of their sites (and only those sites) are awarded their own 'eHealthQ seal'.

They are perhaps not so keen to maintain this empire — they tried to sell their social network Medicalia in 2014, and they offloaded a number of their journals at about the same time. More on that below...

Paper mill

In IAM, one author Luiz Carlos de Abreu has published a stunning 48 articles in just 2015 — a feat I have never seen from a single author in a single journal in a single year, and we're only eight months in.

Copying other publishers

My old BMC colleague Tom Mowlam, now at the open access publisher Ubiquity Press, tweeted: “http://iMed.pub copy @ubiquitypress model; forget to update name!”.


And compare iMed.pub's about page: “Vision: As a service to doctors and biomedical scientists, iMed.pub is driven by clinicians and researchers for themselves, while serving the interests of the general public. iMed.pub disseminates research in a tiered system, beginning with our specialty books and journals and then working upwards. The grand vision of iMed.pub is a world where all medical researchers and health professionals have an equal opportunity to seek, share and create knowledge.
Mission: iMed.pub aims to address the needs of authors and foster a rapid, convenient, unbiased, and comprehensive publishing environment, which not only guarantees the highest quality constructive peer-review process, but also provides an evaluation system that involves the entire research community. To fulfill this mission, iMed.pub applies the most advanced Internet technologies to bring scholarly publishing into a new generation.”

to that of the OA publisher Frontiers: “The Frontiers journal series are a new approach to scientific publishing. As a service to scientists, it is driven by researchers for researchers, while serving the interests of the general public. Frontiers disseminates research in a tiered system, beginning with our specialty journals and working upwards. Our research evaluation system is democratic and objective, and based on the reading activity of not only scientific communities, but that of the general public. It drives the most outstanding and relevant research up to the next tier, the field journals.
VISION: The grand vision of Frontiers is a world where all people have an equal opportunity to seek, share and create knowledge. To help actualize our grand vision, Frontiers provides open and free access to all of its publications.”

The dubious aim to aid pharmaceutical companies in reinforcing their brand messages, and to produce customized content to integrate with global and local communication plans” is taken from Springer HealthcareiMed.pub's “Before you submit is taken from Springer's Before you start. The Statement of Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent is taken from the Korean journal CEEM, leaving CEEM in the text. The Article Processing Charge page is taken from BMC. And so on.

They have also ripped off the PLOS Medicine collection “No Health Without Research” and rebranded it without attributing the source — a breach of the Creative Commons License. They are even selling it on Amazon for $10 — shades of VDM's practice of ripping off Wikipedia articles to sell as books. Other PLOS collections have also been copied.

[EDIT: In April, it was noted on Twitter that peereviewers.com had copied wording from the peer review service Rubriq]

Keeping poor company

iMed.pub is easily confused with Insight Medical Publishing or imedpub.com, an imprint of the notorious publisher OMICS, whose website even uses some of the same wording as iMed.pub (and who Aries are letting use the journal management platform Editorial Manager). An indication that this may be more than OMICS simply ripping off iMed.pub is that on iMed.pub's old website they list Archives of Medicine, Journal of Universal Surgery, Journal of Neurology and Neuroscience, Translational Biomedicine, Archives of Clinical Microbiology, Health Systems and Policy Research, Archives in Cancer Research, and Journal of Biomedical Sciences — which are all now among OMICS/imedpub.com's own list of 75 journals.

iMedpub.com was once run by the Spanish researchers, published in Spanish and owned by Fundación de Neurociencias. The website went through a number of changes of style and logo, then between 28 October 2014 and 8 December 2014 OMICS took over, moving the website to Hyderabad. The journal websites similarly transformed: before and after. However, Carlos may have regretted this, posting “Please, do not mistook this publisher with iMed.pub, International Medical Publisher, the publisher of International Archives of Medicine among others” on Insight Medical Publishing's Facebook page in April 2015.

Carlos/Carvaper (a username of Carlos Vázquez) popped up in the comments of a post by Jeffrey Beall on OMICS for buying their way onto PubMed”, criticising Beall. How... coincidental.

Losing track(ing)

iMed.pub celebrate IAM being indexed by the murky Index Copernicus, a common resort of disreputable publishers. But even this is untrue — they've not had an 'IC Rating' since 2011. They claim “IAM is included in the JournalGuide whitelist of reputable titles”, but the entry says “This journal is not yet included in the JournalGuide whitelist of reputable titles.” They claim to be archived in the Keepers register, but this has not continued beyond the acquisition from BMC. They claim IAM is in Q1 for Medicine in Scopus; it's in Q2.

False identities?

Like Lambert Academic Press before them, the people associated with iMed.pub are more than meets the eye. The author of the iMed.pub books is listed on Amazon as a 'Samuel Barrack'. Samuel Barrack also appears as an editorial board member of the OMICS/imedpub.com journal, Journal of Neurology and Neuroscience, with the affiliation 'Southamptom'[sic]. Almost the only other trace of 'Samuel Barrack' is on Google Scholar as a lone author or co-author with Manuel Menendez of iMed.pub on articles posted to jneurology.wordpress.com, an old iMed.pub site. Samuel also has a Google Plus profile, which uses the stock photo “Doctor smiling in his clinic” aka CB106289.jpg.

Samuel is not the only apparent sockpuppet in iMed.pub's drawer. Medicalia includes a profile for InternetMedicalPublishing, but this is not Vázquez or Menendez — this is someone else called Dr David Ryan. David's association with the site goes all the way back to November 2005, when the Internet Medical Society was founded. He is apparently the web admin and former co-chair, and is based at KCL: “Dr David Ryan, Public Health, Kings[sic] College London, UK”. I can find two David Ryans who attended KCL: one did Classics in 1964, the other History in 1985. The profile pic for 'David Ryan' on Medicalia was also used as “denia telemedicina portada” on neurocien.blogspot.com, the Spanish language blog of Fundación de Neurociencias (run by Menendez) to illustrate “Consulta Médica Online” — this was itself taken from an image (also here) from Hospital Marina Salud de Dénia. Strangely, his Google Plus profile says he is at UCL, not KCL. He also lives in 'Londres, Reino Unido' — how odd that an English doctor would put that in Spanish. On Google Plus David uses the same image of a group of doctors as on his YouTube profile. These doctors are in fact dermatologists at UMass medical school (bonus points for spotting the doctor UMass themselves photoshopped in).

The Spanish language version of their website Medicalia is apparently hosted by 'Sandra Toledo', but her profile picture is also a stock photo.

David Garcia, whose Medicalia profile URL contains 'iMedPub', uses another stock photo. And he replied to a post in December 2012 as though he was Carlos Vázquez Perez.

By now I am even doubting that the CEO of iMed.pub Carlos Vázquez aka Carlos Vázquez Perez exists. His Facebook profile pictures are stock photos and there is little detail available about his background, just 'Clínica Virgen del Carmen, Zaragoza, Spain' (or 'Clínica del Carmen'). He has no publication record that I can find — just two articles on iMed.pub, one of which also appears under the names of Indian and Pakistani researchers. Another Facebook profile for him has the same stock photo as used by David Garcia on Medicalia. Carlos' Google Plus profile picture and Academia picture is actually the picture of a Microsoft employee (and Carlos has two more Google Plus profiles, one of which claims he attended UCL). His email address carvaper@gmail.com was once used for a blog on Urban Trekking that was based in Oviedo — where Manuel Menendez-Gonzalez is based. The Managing Editor of iMed.pub Isabel Miguel might be real, but otherwise could this all be a one-man band run by the only registered company director of iMedPub Ltd, Manuel Menendez-Gonzalez of the University of Oviedo and Hospital Alvarez-Buylla?


iMed Publishing were not just Bohannon's dupes

They have repeatedly copied other OA publishers, churned out papers, associated with another disreputable publisher, given the impression of independence of their different organizations, misreported the tracking of their journals, and apparently invented several false identities. Editors on their boards, prospective authors, other publishers who may be associating with them — PeerJ*, Cureus** — should give iMed.pub and its sister organizations a wide berth.

* imedicalsociety.org said All abstracts will be published only as preprints in the journal PeerJ; PeerJ told me PeerJ has never communicated w iMed & has no partnership to publish w them. We’re investigating.
** Cureus says To echo PeerJ, Cureus has no business relationship with iMedbut iMed.pub's Internet Medical Society has a channel and is promoting Cureus' inclusion in PubMed on social media]


p.s. An ethical aspect of Bohannon's 'chocolate hoax' that was less commented on was that it muddies the water for legitimate research. “Eating chocolate is good for you!” is great clickbait, which is why Bohannon chose it, but there is legitimate work that suggests, as summarised in systematic reviews, that cocoa may have benefits on lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.

p.p.s. Some readers might be experiencing déjà vu, and indeed this story has played out before with another ex-BMC journal. In July 2012, the journal Head and Neck Oncology was discontinued by BMC after an investigation into its editorial practices. The Editor-in-Chief promptly founded an open access publisher based in London, imaginatively titled OA Publishing London, and a raft of associated organizations. The blogger Neuroskeptic had the scoop on their operations, so I need not repeat them here. The similarities between iMed.pub and OAPL are striking, and it seems to come down to a common factor — the hubris of the academics running these publishing operations.

p.p.p.s. I have archived snapshots of the websites involved in case they mysteriously disappear, which I can send to anyone who is interested.

p.p.p.p.s. Competing interests: I am a staff editor at PLOS ONE, but this post is written in a personal capacity. All opinions expressed in this post are mine and not those of PLOS.


Jason Hoyt said...

Matt - PeerJ has never partnered in any form with that publisher. In addition, we announce any legitimately agreed upon arrangements on our blog and elsewhere, so that others may verify such claims.

Lisa said...

Great blog post, and hi from another ex-BMC recruit!
When I was younger and needed cash (i.e. when I worked at BioMed Central...;-)) I used to use a website called Freelancer.com to find freelance writing and editorial work. I don't use it now because I reckon 90% of the 'employer' profiles are fake or otherwise dodgy - in fact, I have a sideline hobby in ratting them out and posting a list on my blog (https://lisaamartin.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/the-fake-freelancer-profile-watch-list/). There are some very similar patterns between your detective work and mine: plagiarised content, stock or stolen photos, users claiming to be American or British when they are in fact Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. I dare say many of the manuscripts that end up published in these dodgy predatory journals are probably written (or plagiarised by) these so-called writers at Freelancer.com and other similar sites. What's to be done?!