Biotech Papers Include Placeholder Text, Like 'XXX'

A few recent biotechnology papers have strange text in their Methods sections.

A search of biotechnology papers turns up "XXXXXX" placeholder text in methods and ethics sections.


A curious comment surfaced on PubPeer in April. A study about nurses and their interactions with autistic children, published in the Journal of Community & Public Health Nursing, included what appeared to be placeholder text. Under a section titled “Ethical Considerations,” the authors wrote that approval for the study “was obtained from the Ethics Committee of XXXXXX University.”

And where, exactly, might that be?

A comment on PubPeer.

And then a second study, published in the journal Dyslexia in 2021, popped up with the same problem. In its ethics review section was this: “Data collected using these measures was stored on Research Electronic Data Capture (REDCap) electronic data capture tools hosted at XXX University.”

The author of the latter study, Dorothy Bishop, clarified the issue on PubPeer. “This wording was used during peer review to ensure blinding of reviewers to identity of authors,” she wrote. “Obviously, it should have been corrected after acceptance.”

After seeing these comments, I naturally wondered: Do any biotechnology papers, published in the last few years, have the same placeholder text problem?

The answer is yes, of course. Or why else would I write this newsletter?

I wrote a Python script to search through full-text papers, published on PubMed Central and containing the word ‘biotechnology’ in the title or abstract (all my code is available on GitHub). This search revealed at least two studies, out of more than 8,800, with placeholder text.

One of the two articles used ‘XXXX’ as placeholder text for a website that, presumably, the authors planned to set up later. Now it links to a porn site.

The first article that I found with placeholder text is titled, “Efficacy of oleandrin and PBI-05204 against bovine viruses of importance to commercial cattle health.” It was published in Antiviral Chemistry and Chemotherapy last month.

The article’s full-text — both on PubMed Central and in the final, published PDF — contains this phrase: “The author(s) declared the following potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Xxxxxxx.”

The authors initially used placeholder text, but then added their competing interests. Nobody ever removed the placeholder.

Nice.

The second article is more exciting. It is titled, intriguingly, “ISO 10993 biological evaluation of novel hemostatic powder – 4SEAL®,” and was also published earlier this year. It, too, contains placeholder text both on the PubMed Central version of the article and in the final, published PDF.

Under “Availability of data and materials” is this: “The following are available online at www.xxxxx.com/xxx/s1.” The text is hyperlinked in the paper, but it’s probably best not to click on it.

A screenshot of text from the second article.

These papers don’t seem to have been published with malicious intent. And they don’t seem to have come from a paper mill. Rather, the Dorothy Bishop response, on the autism study mentioned at the top of this newsletter, seems illustrative. ‘XXX’ is probably used by scientists in the same way that it’s used by computer programmers: to denote unfinished business. It’s really the editors and copyeditors at these journals (if they exist) who are to blame for these errors.


Until next time,

Niko

Twitter: @NikoMcCarty