Friday 9 February 2024

The world of Poor Things at MDPI journals

At the weekend, the Observer ran a piece by Robin McKie entitled "‘The situation has become appalling’: fake scientific papers push research credibility to crisis point". I was one of those interviewed for the article, describing my concerns about a flood of dodgy papers that was polluting the scientific literature.

Two days later I received an email from the editorial office of MDPI publishers with the header "[Children] (IF: 2.4, ISSN 2227-9067): Good Paper Sharing on the Topic of" (sic) that began:

Greetings from the Children Editorial Office!

We recently collected 10 highly cited papers in our journal related to Childhood Autism. And we sincerely invite you to visit and read these papers, because you are an excellent expert in this field of study.

Who could resist such a flattering invitation? MDPI is one of those publishers that appears to be encouraging publication of low quality work, with a massive growth in special issues where papers are published with remarkably rapid turnaround times. Only last week it was revealed that the journal is affected by fake peer review that appears to be generated by AI. So I was curious to take a look.

The first article, by Frolli et al (2022a) was weird. It reported a comparison of two types of intervention designed to improve emotion recognition in children with autism, one of which used virtual reality. The first red flag was the sample size: two groups each of 30 children, all originally from the city of Caserta. I checked Wikipedia, which told me the population of Caserta was around 76,000 in 2017. Recruiting participants for intervention studies is typically slow and laborious and this is a remarkable sample size to recruit from such a small region. But credibility is then stretched to breaking point on hearing that the selection criteria required that the children were all aged between 9 and 10 years and had IQs of 97 or above. No researcher in their right mind would impose unnecessary constraints on recruitment, and both the age and IQ criteria are far tighter than would usually be adopted. I wondered whether there might be a typo in this account, but we then hear that the IQ range of the sample is indeed remarkably narrow: 

"The first experimental group (Gr1) was composed of 30 individuals with a mean age of 9.3 (SD 0.63) and a mean IQ of 103.00 (SD 1.70). ...... The second experimental group (Gr2) was composed of 30 individuals with a mean age of 9.4 (SD 0.49) and mean IQ of 103.13 (SD 2.04)...."

Most samples for studies using Wechsler IQ scales have SD of at least 8, even if cutoffs are applied as selection criteria, so this is unbelievably low.

This dubious paper prompted me to look at others by the first author. It was rather like pulling a thread on a hole in a sweater - things started to unravel fast. A paper published by Frolli et al (2023a) in the MDPI journal Behavioral Sciences claimed to have studied eighty 18-year-olds recruited from four different high schools. The selection criteria were again unbelievably stringent: IQ assessed on the WAIS-IV fell between 95-105 "to ensure that participants fell within the average range of intellectual functioning, minimizing the impact of extreme cognitive variations on our analyses". The lower IQ range selected here corresponds to z-score of -0.33 or 37th percentile. If the population of students covered the full range of IQ, then only around 25% would meet the criterion (between 37th and 63rd centile), so to obtain a sample of 80 it would be necessary to test over 300 potential participants. Furthermore, there are IQ screening tests that can be used in this circumstance that are relatively quick to administer, but the WAIS-IV is not one of them. We are told all participants were given the full test, which requires individual administration by a qualified psychologist and takes around one hour to complete. So who did all this testing, and where? The article states: "The data were collected and analyzed at the FINDS Neuropsychiatry Outpatient Clinic by licensed psychologists in collaboration with the University of International Studies of Rome (UNINT)." So we are supposed to believe that hundreds of 18-year-olds trekked to a neuropsychiatry outpatient clinic for a full IQ screening which most of them would not have passed. I cannot imagine a less efficient way of conducting such a study. I could not find any mention of compensation for participants, which is perhaps unsurprising as the research received no external funding. All of this is described as happening remarkably fast, with ethics approval in January 2023, and submission of the article in October 2023.

Another paper in Children in 2023 focused on ADHD, and again reported recruiting two groups of 30 children for an intervention that lasted 5 months (Frolli et al., 2023b). The narrow IQ selection criteria were again used, with WISC-IV IQs in the range 95-105, and the mean IQs were 96.48 (SD =1.09) and 98.44 (SD = 1.12) for groups 1 and 2 respectively. Again, the research received no external funding. The report of ethics approval is scanty "The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The study was approved by the Ethics Committee and the Academic Senate of the University of International Studies of Rome."

The same first author published a paper on the impact of COVID-19 on cognitive development and executive functioning in adolescents in 2021 (Frolli et al, 2021). I have not gone over it in detail, but a quick scan revealed some very odd statistical reporting. There were numerous F-ratios, but they were all negative, which is impossible, as F is a ratio between two positive numbers. Furthermore, the reported p-values and degrees of freedom didn't always correspond to the F-ratio, even if the sign was ignored.

At this point I was running out of steam, but a quick look at Frolli et al (2022a) on Executive Functions and Foreign Language Learning suggested yet more problems, with the sentence "Significance at the level of 5% (α < 0.001) has been accepted" featuring at least twice. It is hard to believe that a human being wrote this sentence, or that any human author, editor or reviewer read it without comment.

If anyone is interested in pulling at other related threads, I suspect it would be of interest to look at articles accepted for a Special Issue of the MDPI journal Disabilities co-edited by Frolli.

In his brilliant film Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos distorts familiar objects and places just enough to be disturbing. Lisbon looks like what I imagine Lisbon would be in the Victorian age, except that the colours are unusually vivid, there are strange flying cars in the sky, and nobody seems concerned at the central character wandering around only partially clothed (see, e.g., this review).  The combined impression is that MDPI publishes papers from that universe, where everything looks superficially like genuine science but with jarring features that tell you something is amiss. The difference is that Poor Things has a happy ending.


Frolli, A.; Ricci, M.C.; Di Carmine, F.; Lombardi, A.; Bosco, A.; Saviano, E.; Franzese, L. The Impact of COVID-19 on Cognitive Development and Executive Functioning in Adolescents: A First Exploratory Investigation. Brain Sci. 2021, 11, 1222.

Frolli, A.; Savarese, G.; Di Carmine, F.; Bosco, A.; Saviano, E.; Rega, A.; Carotenuto, M.; Ricci, M.C. Children on the Autism Spectrum and the Use of Virtual Reality for Supporting Social Skills. Children 2022a, 9, 181.

Frolli, A.; Cerciello, F.; Esposito, C.; Ciotola, S.; De Candia, G.; Ricci, M.C.; Russo, M.G. Executive Functions and Foreign Language Learning. Pediatr. Rep. 2022b, 14, 450-456.

Frolli, A.; Cerciello, F.; Ciotola, S.; Ricci, M.C.; Esposito, C.; Sica, L.S. Narrative Approach and Mentalization. Behav. Sci. 2023a, 13, 994.

Frolli, A.; Cerciello, F.; Esposito, C.; Ricci, M.C.; Laccone, R.P.; Bisogni, F. Universal Design for Learning for Children with ADHD. Children 2023b, 10, 1350.

Friday 2 February 2024

An (intellectually?) enriching opportunity for affiliation

Guest Post by Nick Wise 


A couple of months ago a professor received the following email, which they forwarded to me.


"Dear esteemed colleagues,

We are delighted to extend an invitation to apply for our prestigious remote research fellowships at the University of Religions and Denominations (URD). These fellowships offer substantial financial support to researchers with papers currently in press, accepted or under review by Scopus-indexed journals. We welcome scholars from diverse academic disciplines to seize this intellectually enriching opportunity.

Fellowship Details:
Fellowship Type: Remote Short-term Research Fellowship.
Research Focus: Diverse fields, spanning humanities, social sciences, interdisciplinary studies, and more.
Research Output: Publication of research articles in Scopus-indexed journals.
Affiliation: Encouragement for researchers to acknowledge URD as their additional affiliation in published articles.
Remuneration: Project-based compensation for each research article.
Payment Range: Up to $1000 USD per article (based on SJR journal ranking).
Eligibility: Papers in press, accepted, or under review by Scopus-indexed journals.

Preference: Priority for indexing before December 30, 2023.

Application Process:   

To express your interest in securing a fellowship, kindly submit your curriculum vitae to  Ahmad Moghri at When emailing your application, please use the subject line: "Research Fellowship, FULL NAME."

Upon Selection:
Successful applicants will receive formal invitations to join our esteemed fellowship program. Invitation letters and collaboration contracts will be dispatched within a maximum of 5 days.

We firmly believe that this fellowship program provides an invaluable platform for scholars to make substantial contributions to their fields while collaborating with the distinguished University of Religions and Denominations. We encourage all eligible individuals to seize this exceptional opportunity.

For inquiries or further information, please do not hesitate to contact

Warmest Regards,”

Why would the institution pay researchers to say that they are affiliated with them? It could be that funding for the university is related to the number of papers published in indexed journals. More articles associated with the university can also improve their placing in national or international university rankings, which could lead directly to more funding, or to more students wanting to attend and bringing in more money.

The University of Religions and Denominations is a private Iranian university specialising, as the name suggests, in the study of different religions and movements. Until recently the institution had very few published papers associated with it according to Dimensions and their subject matter was all related to religion. However, last year there was a substantial increase to 103 published papers, and so far this year there are already 35. This suggests that some academics have taken them up on the offer in the advert to include URD as an affiliation.

Surbhi Bhatia Khan is a lecturer in data science at the University of Salford in the UK since March 2023 and a top 2% scientist in the world according to Stanford University’s rankings. She published 29 research articles last year according to Dimensions, an impressive output, in which she was primarily affiliated to the University of Salford. In addition though, 5 of those submitted in the 2nd half of last year had an additional affiliation at the Department of Engineering and Environment at URD, which is not listed as one of the departments on the university website. Additionally, 19 of the 29 state that she’s affiliated to the Lebanese American University in Beirut, which she was not affiliated with before 2023. She is yet to mention her role at either of these additional affiliations on her LinkedIn profile.

Looking at the Lebanese American University, another private university, its publication numbers have shot up from 201 in 2015 to 503 in 2021 and 2,842 in 2023, according to Dimensions. So far in 2024 they have published 525, on track for over 6,000 publications for the year. By contrast, according to the university website, the faculty consisted of 547 full-time staff members in 2021 but had shrunk to 423 in 2023.  It is hard to imagine how such growth in publication numbers could occur without a similar growth in the faculty, let alone with a reduction.

How many other institutions are seeing incredible increases in publication numbers? Last year we saw gaming of the system on a grand scale by various Saudi Arabian universities, but how many offers like the one above are going around, whether by email or sent through Whatsapp groups or similar?

The Committee On Publication Ethics held a forum on claiming institutional affiliations in December 2023, in recognition of the fact that guidance for what merits affiliation to an institution is lacking and there are no accepted standards for how many affiliations an author should give. It looks like such guidance can’t come soon enough.

Nick Wise is a researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK.

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P.S. 3rd Feb 2024

Someone on social media queried the "top 2% rating" for Khan. Nick tells me this is based on an Elsevier ranking for 2022: