Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

64 more papers retracted for fake reviews, this time from Springer journals

with 7 comments

springerThis is officially becoming a trend: Springer is pulling another 64 articles from 10 journals after finding evidence of faked peer reviews, bringing the total number of retractions from the phenomenon north of 230.

Given that there have been about 1,500 papers retracted overall since 2012, when we first reported on the phenomenon, faked reviews have been responsible for about 15% of all retractions in the past three years.

This isn’t the first time Springer has faced the issue. As owner of the BioMed Central journals, it issued 43 retractions for faked reviews earlier this year.

In a statement, the publisher explains how the latest round of retractions came to light:

Springer confirms that 64 articles are being retracted from 10 Springer subscription journals, after editorial checks spotted fake email addresses, and subsequent internal investigations uncovered fabricated peer review reports. After a thorough investigation we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process on these 64 articles was compromised. We reported this to the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE) immediately. Attempts to manipulate peer review have affected journals across a number of publishers as detailed by COPE in their December 2014 statement. Springer has made COPE aware of the findings of its own internal investigations and has followed COPE’s recommendations, as outlined in their statement, for dealing with this issue. Springer will continue to participate and do whatever we can to support COPE’s efforts in this matter.

The publisher is also corresponding with the individual authors and institutions affected by the retractions:

We have been in contact with the corresponding authors and institutions concerned, and will continue to work with them.

Springer added it’s taking steps to avoid future incidents:

The peer-review process is one of the cornerstones of quality, integrity and reproducibility in research, and we take our responsibilities as its guardians seriously. We are now reviewing our editorial processes across Springer to guard against this kind of manipulation of the peer review process in future.

We’re still not sure which papers have been retracted, but will keep checking the Springer site for new notices and will update the post when we know more. [Update, 7:30 a.m. Eastern, 8/18: Here are the 64 papers.]

You can read more about our dive into the problem, which has affected several major publishers, in Nature.

A Springer spokesperson provided us with more details about how they’re trying to stop this from happening again:

We have further strengthened our the checks in our editorial offices as a result of this. We are working to support our external editors to make them aware of the issues and ensure that thorough checks of peer reviewers are completed. Credentials from peer reviewers will be increasingly checked by our editorial office, which support our editors-in-chief, and some journals may request more information in the form of an institutional e-mail address and/or SCOPUS ID of the suggested reviewer.

The authors are not always to blame for faked emails. Recently, BMC cleared the authors of a retracted paper of responsibility for faking the emails that compromised the peer review of their paper. Last month, we learned that it was the editors at Hindawi journals who faked emails in more than 30 papers.

In the 64 papers retracted today, too, the authors may not always have been involved, said the Springer spokesperson:

Findings suggest some third party agencies, offering pre-submission editing and submission assistance services to authors, may have been involved during the submission process. In situations where institutional investigations have found that authors have been inadvertently affected by the compromised peer review process, they will be encouraged to resubmit and go through a legitimate peer review process.

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  • Gary August 18, 2015 at 4:42 am

    I know this has been mentioned in the past by other commentators – but I think (due to the large number of retractions) shouldn’t subscribers to these journals get a rebate?
    After all they pay for the articles (at least for many Springer Journals) so shouldn’t they get back 15% of their subscription?

    • Daniel August 20, 2015 at 6:39 am

      I was thinking the same when I read about it. After all, Springer claims:

      > The peer-review process is one of the cornerstones of quality, integrity and reproducibility in research, and we take our responsibilities as its guardians seriously.

      That’s easy to say, but it’s money, esp. the loss of it, that keeps people honest. If it doesn’t cost them anything, there’s little incentive. Given that the retracted papers are only a tiny amount of the published papers in total (*not* 15%), the amount will not be large, but it’s a statement (and it might add up).

      You could also go the “based researched on (likely) shoddy papers”, so there are opportunity costs and the like, but it’s unlikely that you could go this route. AFAIR publishers state that they do not take responsibility for the veracity of the content. Given that it’s science, they can’t, although here it’s … well, mistakes by the journal. Hmm, perhaps they could demand the money back from the authors who tried to bypass the peer-review process this way. That might also send a message.

      Otherwise there’s probably only the hope that researchers will not want to publish in a journal where peer-review can be bypassed this easily.

      On the plus side, at least the journals did retract them.

  • Upon further review August 18, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Ugh. I am writing a major literature review with 267 references and counting. I held my breath and scanned this list of 64 retractions, fairly confident that none of the papers were in my area of interest. That was true, but it got me worrying about citing retracted papers in the future, since it’s going to be a couple more months before I submit.

    Short of repeatedly going through what will be 350+ references one by one, does anyone have an idea how to monitor such a large bibliography for retractions? Maybe a google Scholar or Pubmed trick?

    • A Ervik August 18, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      If you are serious about it:
      Write (or find help to write) a small Python script that takes in a DOI, downloads the webpage for that paper, gets the appropriate part of tge HTML and hashes it (MD5). When you add a new item to your bibliography, you must add both the DOI and the MD5. Then, when you want to check for retractions etc., run a wrapper script that loops through all your citations, downloads again the webpage from the DOI, hashes it and compares to the known hash. Then it alerts you to all cases where the hashes don’t match.

      This will throw lots of false positives, and it’s a bit of work, but it sounds doable.

  • Shane Canning August 18, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Thank you for your comment, Gary. I believe there may be a bit of a misunderstanding about the 15% quoted in the blog post. The 15% represents all of the 230 retractions because of peer review manipulation for the last three years, as a percentage of the total retractions reported by Retraction Watch. This includes journals from many publishers, not just those published by Springer. The 64 articles that we have retracted represent less than 0.05% of the more than 100,000 articles Springer published in 2014. Overall, over 1 million articles are published in academic journals each year.

  • Len Dobens August 19, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Pre-submission editing services have to justify their efforts, which include editing the original submission and the subsequent reply to reviewers. If a reply becomes unnecessary because of their phony peer-review, workload is reduced and the duly impressed authors will come back for repeat business. Just terrible to consider the amount of money that should support the science and the people who do it funneled to these people.

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