Large-Scale Peer-Review Fraud Leads To Retraction Of 64 Scientific Papers

from the time-to-fix-the-real-problem dept

Techdirt has written numerous articles about an important move in academic publishing towards open access. By shifting the funding of production costs from the readers to the researchers' institutions it is possible to provide free online access to everyone while ensuring that high academic standards are maintained. An important aspect of that, both for open access and traditional publishing, is peer review, which is designed to ensure that the most important papers are brought forward, and that they are checked and improved as they pass through the publication process. Given that pivotal role, the following story in The Washington Post is both shocking and troubling:

One of the world’s largest academic publishers, Springer, has retracted 64 articles from 10 of its journals after discovering that their reviews were linked to fake e-mail addresses. The announcement comes nine months after 43 studies were retracted by BioMed Central (one of Springer’s imprints) for the same reason.
To put those numbers in context, a specialized site that tracks this and similar malpractice in the academic world, Retraction Watch, reports that the total number of papers withdrawn because of fake reviews is 230 in the past three years.

It's not known exactly how the reviews of the 64 articles involved were faked, or by whom. But there are plenty of other cases that indicate ways in which the peer review system is being subverted. These range from the obvious ones like researchers reviewing their own papers or suggesting people they know as suitable reviewers, to more devious approaches, including the use of companies providing "specialist" services. As the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) wrote in its statement on "inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes":

While there are a number of well-established reputable agencies offering manuscript-preparation services to authors, investigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses. Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious.

We are unclear how far authors of the submitted manuscripts are aware that the reviewer names and email addresses provided by these agencies are fraudulent. However, given the seriousness and potential scale of the investigation findings, we believe that the scientific integrity of manuscripts submitted via these agencies is significantly undermined.
The Washington Post article goes on to discuss various policies that publishers are beginning to put in place in an attempt to prevent fakes from undermining the peer review system. But the real problem lies not in the publishing process, but in the way that academic careers are judged and advanced. Currently, too great an emphasis is placed on how many papers a researcher has published, and whether they are in "prestigious" journals, where "prestigious" is generally defined using the highly-unsatisfactory "impact factor," supposedly a measure of academic influence. This creates an enormous "pressure to publish," which inevitably leads to some people cutting corners.

The best way to address the growing problem of fake reviews is to adopt better, more inclusive ways of evaluating academics and their work, and thus move beyond today's fixation on publishing papers in high impact-factor titles. While that thorny issue remains unaddressed, the great revolution in knowledge production and dissemination that open access potentially enables will remain incomplete and even compromised.

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  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 24 Aug 2015 @ 11:58pm

    [...] where "prestigious" is generally defined using the highly-unsatisfactory "impact factor" [...]
    How much 'impact' can a journal have when it's behind an overpriced paywall, anyways? *shrugs*

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Richard (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 2:48am

      Re:

      How much 'impact' can a journal have when it's behind an overpriced paywall, anyways? *shrugs*

      The impact factor is a statistical measure based upon citations of papers in the journal. It is sort of self perpetuating because if you want to publish in a well known journal then it is a good idea to cite previous papers in the journal.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Richard (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 2:51am

        Re: Re:

        and btw most papers in the big paywalled journals ARE feeely available online (often in a pre-publication version) if you know where to look.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Sheogorath (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 5:20am

          Re: Re:

          That might be so, but how's anyone to see 'em with all the paywalled journals crowding out the Open Access ones in search results? Next time, please engage brain before fingers, all right?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            tqk (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 9:38am

            Re: Re: Re:

            Next time, please engage brain before fingers, all right?

            Do you? Are you in the midst of a circadian low, or did someone pee in your cornflakes? What's with all the insults?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Richard (profile), 26 Aug 2015 @ 2:53am

            Re: Re: Re:

            That might be so, but how's anyone to see 'em with all the paywalled journals crowding out the Open Access ones in search results? Next time, please engage brain before fingers, all right?


            The procedure is as follows

            1. Search for topic, author etc.

            2. Find paper you want in paywalled journal.

            3. Re-type title (and/or author names) into google.

            4. Find free version.

            I am an active reseacher, I have done this many many times and I can assure you it works.


            So your last sentence applies to you and not to me.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 10:13am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Careful. While I know a surefire way to get many of the papers for free in prepub versions (Ask the author! Usually they are also very happy to release raw data and pers.com. a little extra help.), the copyright situation is often dicey.

          I remember quite a lot of hoops to jump to "legally" get some articles, the authors and their publishers hadn't blessed.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 5:27am

      Re:

      You've seen how much Elsevier extorts from universities, right?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Sheogorath (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 11:03am

        Re: Re:

        Well, yeah. That's the other half of the reason I'll do without the content rather than pay them. Hopefully, universities will do the same one day and the whole thing will come crashing down. That's the only bad thing about Open Access; it made the pay journals less of an oligopoly.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 12:23am

    why not open up the review process to everyone?
    Like how torrent sites work with trusted uploaders, maybe a system where the length of time someone has been a reviewer and how many papers they have reviewed should be taken into consideration, but dont just close the review process to these select few, but open it up so anyone can review it, but it would stay in a 'to-be-reviewed' section until enough trusted people have reviewed the paper.

    idk, i have no idea how the process even works, just a thought i had.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      eaving (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 2:46am

      Re:

      The problem with a totally open review process was you open yourselves up to people with political axes to grind. For reference on that look up any discussion regarding wiki edits on evolution or climate change. You'd end up with similar issues on peer review papers. Having said that an open site where reviewers are somehow verified and could review anything in their fields wouldn't be a bad idea.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Del_Varner, 25 Aug 2015 @ 7:27am

        Re: Open Peer Review

        Indeed. Look at the edit wars that occur regularly in Wikipedia, and you can see why not everyone should be a reviewer.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 9:42am

        Re: Re:

        ...but it would stay in a 'to-be-reviewed' section until enough trusted people have reviewed the paper.

        The problem with a totally open review process was you open yourselves up to people with political axes to grind.

        Add in anonymity. Don't attach any names or identifying info to papers in said to-be-reviewed queue.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    TestPilotDummy, 25 Aug 2015 @ 2:54am

    This FRAUD has other impacts on health

    Like when they say your cholestorol is high so you need to be on a STATIN. -- utter lies yet the obamacare RUNS OFF THIS RIGHT NOW!!!

    Or when they say your A1C is high, now your a DIEBETIC. --utter lies yet obamacare also PUSH this shit too.

    Or when you say you can't sleep, now your DSM codes just changed to MENTAL HEALTH - here have a few XANIX -- obamacare runs this fraud also.

    This is one reason I don't want 36 agencies sharing my "Broken Arm" data. I just don't believe that the DOD needs to know about my CHEST ANGINA.

    But then I am just a DUMMY.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    craig (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 4:08am

    Just a minor quibble

    "...ways in which the peer review system is being subverted. These range from the obvious ones like researchers reviewing their own papers or suggesting people they know as suitable reviewers..."

    The people who are most qualified to review a paper are very likely to be known by the paper's author(s) because these technical fields are often very small when you get as specialized as these papers are. In my own field, there are maybe 150 people who study what I do. I know most of them, especially the better researchers who I would want reviewing my paper because they will give the best (most thoughtful, intelligent) feedback.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Peer Review Problemo, 25 Aug 2015 @ 6:20pm

    Peer review has problems

    Though there are benefits for having a paper peer reviewed, there are also major problems with the peer review process. A comment earlier in this discussion made the following statement:
    The problem with a totally open review process was you open yourselves up to people with political axes to grind
    This particular problem already exists in the peer review process. If you publish a paper, you had better be following in the dogma associated with your field, because if you don't you will get crucified.

    I recently had a discussion with a "climate change true believer scientist" about a specific section of the anthropogenic climate change process. I was after any papers that have been published in relation to the measured amounts of energy retention in the global system. He was able to direct me to a couple of papers which I had not previously seen. The first paper gave summaries of measurements made over 50 to 60 years. My conclusions at the end of reading the paper were the complete opposite of what he believed. When I made my comments to that effect in relation to my discussion points, instead of continuing to discuss the specific process, he basically stated that he could not continue because I did not agree with his basic view that climate change is anthropogenic climate change.

    I have had many discussions over the years with various scientists about specific areas and many (and certainly by no means all) will terminate a discussion when their views are not agreed with. Others will continue a discussion till we get to a point of agreeably disagreeing.

    I have seen this same process with papers that are peer reviewed. The reviewers themselves will get caned/ ostracised/declared anathema if they recommend a paper that goes against the main stream.

    I find it quite interesting that we see today in the science and technology fields the same mentality we see in history with the Roman Catholic Church [Disclaimer: I used to be a member of that institution] and those that had different models to those acceptable to the RCC.

    I also find it interesting that various scientists and technologists take up non standard research subjects after retiring - when they no longer have to follow the herd (so to speak).

    Opening up the peer review process won't ensure that better quality papers will come forth, but neither does the current process. Opening up the peer review process does give more people opportunity to see the papers and make their own decisions about the material and provide feedback if they desire.

    I have a considerable electronic library of freely available papers (in a wide range of areas) in which many have some wonderful gems in amidst the rubbish of rest of the paper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Richard (profile), 26 Aug 2015 @ 3:10am

      Re: Peer review has problems

      This particular problem already exists in the peer review process. If you publish a paper, you had better be following in the dogma associated with your field, because if you don't you will get crucified.

      Actually that is not the problem that most researchers face. The biggest issue is not about what is true - but rather about what is interesting!

      Researchers tend to form cliques that self validate the importance of what they are doing. Anyone starting a new field of enquiry will have difficulty unless they are already an established "star name".

      Far more papers are rejected because the reviewer doesn't think the ideas in the paper are significant than because the reviewer thinks that they are wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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