Most of the cases were not published because they were discovered by a manuscript editor on a final pre-publication check. The five or so that have been published will go through some sort of re-review, which may result in expressions of concern or retraction.
The narrative seems similar to that in the growing number of cases of peer review manipulation we’ve seen recently. What tipped off the editor was minor spelling mistakes in the reviewers’ names, and odd non-institutional email addresses that were often changed once reviews had been submitted, in an apparent attempt to cover the fakers’ tracks. Those “reviewers” had turned in reports across several journals, spanning several subjects.
It would seem that a third party, perhaps marketing services helping authors have papers accepted, was involved.
The publisher has let all of its external editors in chief know about the situation. To prevent it from happening again, authors will not be able to recommend reviewers for their papers. Here’s a message from BioMed Central senior managing editor Diana Marshall that went out to a number of journal editors earlier today:
We need to inform you of a situation that has come to light on several journals involving potentially fake peer reviewers.
When completing final editorial checks on a manuscript an in-house Editor spotted irregularities in reviewer reports from author-suggested reviewers. Further investigation suggests that the reviewers have been fabricated. By searching systematically across our systems we have uncovered a number of cases of these potentially fake peer reviewers returning reports across several journals including a number in the BMC series.
There doesn’t seem to be an obvious link between the authors as they are different in each case. We are concerned that a third party is involved, possibly supplying the names of fake reviewers to authors to influence the peer review process. While we investigate further we will temporarily switch off the functionality which allows authors to suggest potential peer reviewers directly into our workflows. This change will come into effect in the next few days.
We appreciate this may cause concern but given the level of sophisticated fraud that appears to be taking place we hope you will understand.
We will be in touch with individual Editors if manuscripts you have handled have been directly affected and if your attention is required for individual cases.
BioMed Central tells Retraction Watch:
In completing our checks and balances on a manuscript, one of our in-house editors spotted problems in reports from author-suggested reviewers. Since this was flagged, we have searched our systems and found several potential false reviewer accounts that seem to have returned peer review reports to several of our journals. At present this amounts to around 50 manuscripts, the majority of which have not been published and are held in our systems.
We cannot see a clear link between the authors and believe that a third party may be involved, and influencing the peer review process.
At this stage we are investigating further and the manuscripts are on hold. We have informed our staff and external editors and are switching off the functionality that allows authors to suggest potential peer reviewers directly into our systems while we look into the issue in more depth.
Journals have retracted more than 100 papers in the past two years for fake peer reviews, many of which were written by the authors themselves.
Update, 2 p.m. Eastern, 11/25/14: Based on additional information, clarified headline and first line of post to reflect that most of the 50 manuscripts were somewhere in the editorial process, not accepted. BioMed Central also tells us that in many cases, editors did not use the author-suggested reviewers, but nevertheless held the manuscript after noticing the irregularities.