Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Eight retractions for fake reviews lead journal to suspend author nominations

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An investigation has uncovered fake reviews on 21 papers submitted to the Journal of the Renin-Angiotensin Aldosterone System.

After taking a second look at accepted papers with an author-nominated reviewer, the journal discovered that the listed reviewers on the 21 papers, though real people, had never submitted a report.

Eight of the papers have been retracted by JRAAS. The rest had not yet been published, and have now been rejected, explains a commentary by the journal editors. The journal has also stopped allowing authors to nominate reviewers.

The retraction note — the same on all eight papers — explains how the authors “seriously compromised” the review process:

After conducting a thorough investigation, SAGE found that the submitting authors of a number of papers published in the Journal of the Renin-Angiotensin Aldosterone System (JRAAS) (listed below) had supplied fabricated contact details for their nominated reviewers. The Editors accepted these papers based on the reports supplied by the individuals using these fake reviewer email accounts. After concluding that the peer review process was therefore seriously compromised, SAGE and the journal Editors have decided to retract all affected articles.

The note lists those articles — the first six were published online, and hadn’t yet made it into an issue (or been indexed on Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge):

Two more — published last year, and in print this year — and have been cited zero times:

A statement from a spokesperson for SAGE, which publishes the journal, explains how the investigation started:

As part of our ongoing work to ensure the highest standards of robust peer review, SAGE and the editors of the Journal of the Renin-Angiotensin Aldosterone System (JRAAS) identified a case of suspected reviewer fraud in early 2015.

And what it found:

The investigation revealed that fabricated reviewer accounts – genuine names with falsified email addresses – were set up in ScholarOne and used as recommended reviewers by the submitting authors.

We received a brief response from Tian-Biao Zhou, a corresponding author on three of the retracted papers, which says a “paper company” was involved:

We have make a mistake that our manuscript was send to the review system by the paper company. We did not know who were recommended by them.

We’ve asked Zhou for more information.

In some recent cases of fake reviews — like slews of retractions from Springer, and BioMed Central — there has been evidence that third parties were involved.

However, a SAGE spokesperson told us that they did not have any evidence that third parties were involved in faking the review for the eight retracted papers:

Although third party involvement cannot be ruled out entirely, our investigation concluded the submitting authors did provide details for the nominated reviewers.When the investigation team first contacted the submitting authors for an explanation of the fake reviewers (genuine names with falsified email addresses), the authors’ response was unsatisfactory; suggesting it was a coincidence and that individuals with the same name and slightly different email address might have reviewed the papers. We have evidence that the genuine individuals whose names were used with false email accounts did not review for JRAAS.

If a submitting author is now able to offer further information on the alleged agency used and provide a detailed explanation on how fake reviewers were nominated for their papers, we would welcome this new information which had not been shared with the investigation team despite repeated requests for cooperation.

Our feature last year for Nature about the phenomenon of fake reviews explains the loophole in ScholarOne that allows for someone to submit a made-up report:

When a reviewer is invited to read a paper, he or she is sent an e-mail with login information. If that communication goes to a fake e-mail account, the recipient can sign into the system under whatever name was initially submitted, with no additional identity verification.

The editors explain in their commentary that they found the real contact information for the people listed as reviewers:

We have traced the actual nominated reviewers and, where we received a response, those individuals have denied submitting a review of the relevant manuscript. This represents a clear case of identity fraud. Authorship was common to the majority of the papers.

They also detail the action that they’ve taken against the authors:

All authors have been notified together with the institutions from which they were submitted. In several cases where the offending authors have published extensively in other journals, the editors of those journals have been informed of our concerns about the manipulation of the peer review process.

They note their decision to no longer take author suggestions for reviewers:

The editors of JRAAS have taken the decision to immediately suspend the use of author nominated reviewers. We would strongly urge other journal editors and their respective publishers to take similar actions. Forensic investigation reveals certain clues to fraudulent reviews including the use of non-institutional email addresses, email domains based in a country different from that of the named reviewer and the recurrent nomination of individuals from a “panel” of reviewers. The reviews are often brief, formulaic and contain common phrases despite apparently being from different reviewers.

JRAAS joins other journals in not accepting author nominations for peer reviewers. From our Nature feature:

Some scientists and publishers say that journals should not allow authors to recommend reviewers in the first place. John Loadsman, an editor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, which is published by the Australian Society of Anaesthetists in Sydney, calls the practice “bizarre” and “completely nuts”, and says that his journal does not permit it.

It is unclear exactly what proportion of journals allows the practice, but as fields become more specialized it provides an easy way for busy editors to find relevant expertise. Jennifer Nyborg, a biochemist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says that most of the journals to which she submits articles request at least five potential reviewers.

Earlier this year, DNA and Cell Biology said it would no longer accept author suggestions of reviewers with non-institutional email addresses.

With this latest round, the total number of retractions for faked reviews is nearly at 300.

We’ve reached out to the remaining corresponding authors of the newly retracted papers for comment. We’ll update this post with anything else we learn.

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  • Dean Meyer December 24, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Why don’t journals just blacklist all these cheaters for life?

    • Bobo December 24, 2015 at 3:59 pm

      Because people can change?

  • Mary Kuhner December 24, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    In a paper with a lengthy author list, it is difficult to know who is the guilty party, and one wouldn’t want to blacklist an innocent person for life.

    Co-authors are supposed to sign off on the final version of the paper, but I don’t know of any journal that makes them sign off on recommended reviewers. In my experience this information is requested during paper submission and only the person doing the submission–normally the corresponding author–even sees it. On the other hand, sometimes the list of recommended reviewers is prepared in advance by a senior person, so it’s possible that the corresponding author does not know the emails are falsified. And in China it is apparently very common for papers to be submitted by a non-author. (Perhaps this practice needs to be banned?)

    We sweat blood over the recommended reviewers on particularly critical or touchy papers, because we have heard that some journals accept the recommendations and others take them as a list of reviewers *not* to use. If you don’t know which journals are which, nominating reviewers becomes a complete crapshoot. What to do? I’d be delighted, on a selfish level, if journals just stopped asking. But this might lead to less qualified reviewers, which would also be a bad thing. I think the problem is not pressing in a large field, but if I write a paper on a topic only half a dozen people are expert in, does the journal know where to find them? I’ve seen journals invite the authors of papers I cited–but that could lead to an inbred reviewer pool where other viewpoints are not properly represented.

  • Joseph Maxwell December 25, 2015 at 4:05 am

    Simply despicable, one has to wonder to what extent the scientific data pool is corrupted? Corrupted by sloppiness & inaccuracies is one thing, by cheats is quite another!

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