Ghost writing is taking on an altogether different meaning in a mysterious case of alleged scientific fraud. The authors of a paper published in July (A. Vezyraki et al. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun.; 2013), which reported significant findings in obesity research, seem to be phantoms. They are not only unknown at the institution listed on the paper, but no trace of them as researchers can be found.

The paper, published in the Elsevier journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications (BBRC), is not the kind of prank that journals have encountered before, in which hoaxsters have submitted dummy papers to highlight weaknesses in the peer-review process. The paper’s reported findings — that overexpression of two novel proteins in fat cells leads to improvements in metabolic processes related to diabetes and obesity in mice — are, in fact, true.

Too true, in the opinion of Bruce Spiegelman, a cell biologist at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. He says that he has presented similar findings at about six research meetings, and is preparing to submit them to a journal. He suspects that the BBRC paper was intended as a spoiler of his own lab’s work.

Now withdrawn, the article lists five authors who are all supposedly from the School of Health Sciences at the University of Thessaly in Trikala, Greece, and is entitled ‘Identification of meteorin and metrnl as two novel pro-differentiative adipokines: Possible roles in controlling adipogenesis and insulin sensitivity’. Adipokines are proteins secreted by fat tissue that play an active part in such processes as sugar and fat metabolism, inflammation and obesity-related metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance and diabetes.

Spiegelman says that he smelt a rat as soon as he saw the paper. Meteorin and metrnl have been little studied, and no previous paper has shown a role for them in obesity. It was therefore suspicious, he says, to see a paper published out of the blue reporting that they were novel adipo­kines and that their overexpression in adipose cells led to improvements in diabetes and obesity in mice — exactly the same findings as the work he had presented.

On 20 July, he e-mailed Ernesto Carafoli, BBRC’s editor-in-chief, to air his concerns. “The authors on this paper have apparently never published a single academic paper before and they list a non-academic e-mail address,” he wrote. “Odder still, upon looking for them on Google, PubMed or on the website of the university they list, there is no mention of any of the authors as being at that university.”

Carafoli, along with Elsevier, launched an investigation. Elsevier temporarily withdrew the paper from the journal website on 8 August, and, after the University of Thessaly confirmed that none of the researchers listed on the paper had ever worked there, now intends to withdraw it permanently.

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. Scientific misconduct is usually done for academic gain, but because the authors on the paper seem to be phantoms, they can derive no benefit, he says. He argues that this seems to leave “maliciousness” as the only explanation.

Spiegelman says that he is surprised that the e-mail address of the corresponding author did not prompt the journal to ask for evidence of the authors’ institutional affiliations. “The e-mail was a bit strange, and that we could have checked,” agrees Carafoli, but nothing else in the paper aroused suspicion. “It was impeccable. The authors were clearly academics,” he adds.

The perpetrators also seem to have used Greek surnames similar to those of authentic researchers working in obesity-related research, in what one might speculate was an attempt to fool referees should they search the literature. There are also genuine researchers at the University of Thessaly working in the field of obesity.

Spiegelman, who is certain that the paper is “made up”, is keen for there to be a criminal investigation. He says that lawyers have told him that the faked paper represents fraud, not just academic misconduct — a view shared by Carafoli. But Spiegelman says the lawyers also advised that although he might have been the target, there would be little basis for him to sue, whereas Elsevier, BBRC and the University of Thessaly could have grounds to press fraud charges.

Elsevier told Nature: BBRC has been targeted by a scheme to defraud our editors, reviewers and readers with submission of a manuscript with falsified author and institutional information and therefore wholly unverifiable scientific claims. We consider such abuse unethical.” It added that it is continuing its investigation and will, with the relevant authorities, “explore the question of whether this constitutes a criminal case of Internet fraud”.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on September 24, 2013.