Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Are companies selling fake peer reviews to help papers get published?

with 10 comments

copeFaked peer reviews — a subject about which we’ve been writing more and more recently — are concerning enough to a number of publishers that they’ve approached the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) to work together on a solution.

In the past, we have reported on a number of cases in which authors were able to submit their own peer reviews, using fake email addresses for recommended reviewers. But what seems to be happening now is that companies are offering manuscript preparation services that go as far as submitting fake peer reviews. And that, no surprise, worries publishers.

Here’s COPE’s statement out today:

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)  has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers. These manipulations appear to have been orchestrated by a number of third party agencies offering services to authors.  This statement is issued on behalf of COPE after consultation with a variety of publishers to underscore the seriousness with which we take these issues and our determination to address them.

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. Publishers who already know they are affected will be publishing statements on their own websites and will be  taking the following immediate actions.

·         Articles that have been published solely on the basis of reviews from fabricated contacts will be retracted in line with COPE guidance and authors and institutions involved will be contacted.

·         Publishers are examining their own databases for the presence of fabricated reviewer accounts and contact details and will be contacting the authors of papers  for which those reviewers were suggested as well as the relevant institutions, even if the papers were not accepted.

Authors with any concerns about inappropriate agency involvement in suggesting peer reviewers or any other aspect of the manuscript preparation and submission process should contact the relevant journal.

COPE is working with publishers, publishing organizations and relevant national bodies to determine how best to address this situation in the longer term. Updates will follow as more information becomes available. We encourage anyone with information on these issues to contact COPE directly on cope_administrator@publicationethics.org

BioMed Central, which was hit with a case involving at least 50 submitted manuscripts last month, also put out a statement:

Following the discovery amongst a handful of BioMed Central journals that some author-suggested reviewers appeared to be fabricated, we have undertaken a systematic and thorough investigation together with other publishers and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

What we have found suggests that some third party agencies may be providing services to authors which include fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses.

COPE has issued a statement. We will be working with COPE and other publishers to find ways to address this situation and will now proceed with the retraction of the affected articles that were published and rejection of those that are currently held in our systems.

We are contacting all institutions where researchers suggested fabricated peer reviewers on submission to a BioMed Central journal, and are working with all of our external editors, particularly those whose journals were affected, to ensure we aren’t affected in the future. We are in the process of reviewing our policy on author suggested reviewers.

It turns out there’s another problem brewing, according to a fascinating piece out this week by Charles Seife: Authorships for sale. The BMC statement continues:

A separate issue also possibly involving third-party agencies is reported here in Scientific American. These articles will be dealt with at the same time as those compromised by fabricated peer reviewers and will be included in our guidance going forward.

Written by Ivan Oransky

December 19th, 2014 at 7:37 am

Comments
  • Adam Etkin (@adametkin) December 19, 2014 at 7:56 am

    At this point it’s clear (to me any way) that companies do exist which sell fake peer reviews. The question is, what do we do about it?

  • Dariusz December 19, 2014 at 8:04 am

    This happens when scientists, or rather pseudo-scientists, are unable to write their own articles and ask a third party to do it for them. Writing an article is an inseparable part of scientific work. Scientists who cannot do it should learn it or do something else, because they are not scientists. Any articles solely written by the third party agencies should be retracted and work of such agencies should be banned immediately. The only allowed help for the scientists should be language assistance for those who are not the native English speakers…

  • Leonid Schneider December 19, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Is there any limit to greed and contempt for basic ethics in scientific research?

    • ed goodwin December 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

      No, Leonid, not in the current system or any minor revisions to it. The only hope is to totally remove the economics from science research that promotes “publish or perish” greed and grantsmanship. The profit motive exists in all human endeavors: universities, government, private industry and many nonprofits. For most people “science for public benefit” is akin to sex to create another lovely child for the public benefit. Who wants to admit that profit and pleasure are primordial drivers of mass motivation, as to themselves?

      • Leonid Schneider December 19, 2014 at 2:00 pm

        Ed, “publish or perish” would be actually fair, if the bit about “publish” was in any way scientifically sound or honest. It is not only about “bad” publishing which is RW’s topic. While careers are killed by alleged poor publishing, those who hardly ever publish get the jobs.

    • Imran December 24, 2014 at 12:52 am

      Greed is a curse so its limits are unknown. The only solution to this problem is to abruptly ban this type of practice in which the authors are permitted to suggest their reviewers. I always wonder that this type of publication will be free of biases, surely not.

  • ed goodwin December 19, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Even in the “best” of peer review the process is laden with bias, politics, and stupidity. If mankind were ever able to outgrow these primordial forces there
    might be some hope for a rough approximation of “scientific truth”. The whole
    process of group human behavior can be summed up as “groupidity” and the more one disagrees, the more they become entrenched in it. Somewhere, someone is looking at us as a bunch of self and other delusional crackpots.

  • herr doktor bimler December 19, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    The question is, what do we do about it?
    The companies are merely professionalising a task which people are already performing for themselves. They’re not the problem; only another symptom of a problem.

    …The real problem being the structure of perverse incentives which requires university staff to be publication-output machines. There is money involved, so a rich ecosystem develops to help them.

  • Cranky Epi December 19, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    The problem lies with the journals who require the authors to identify their own reviewers. Does anyone who wants to ensure the integrity of the peer review process really think this is a good idea? It just creates a wonderful opportunity for the deception industry. Anyone who is too lazy to write their own paper will be too lazy to find their own reviewers.

  • Dr. Abdul Wakeel January 10, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Most of the journals wish to have non paid reviewers, that’s why they require the authors to identify their own reviewers. Otherwise, if reviewers are also paid enough, they may spend sufficient time to review the articles and can show more presence for review process. I suggest that reviewers should be identified by journal and they must have a panel of experts at their list. Secondly many journals are so general that it is very difficult for a journal to keep a good list of reviewers from so diversified fields, therefore journals should be very specific to the field. Thirdly many journals and publishers are doing this job only to earn money therefore the quality is affected. Fourthly there is a run for impact factor increase and journals prefer to publish the articles of those scientists who have a very long list of publications or their efficiency is to publish even more than 20 articles per year to increase their citations.

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