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

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tracks this and similar malpractice in the academic world, Retraction Watch, reports that the total number of papers withdrawn because of fake reviews is 230 in the past three years.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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