Retraction Watch: As the new Head of Research Integrity at Hindawi, what does your position entail? What does your typical day look like?
Matt Hodgkinson: I oversee research integrity at Hindawi, which mainly means publication ethics. This involves day-to-day handling of errors and allegations of misconduct and also reviewing our practices, before and after publication. I assess new claims, manage the progress of cases, approve corrections and retractions, look into how our processes and policies can be improved, and interact with other publishers and organizations like the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). I usually deal with new claims and updates to cases and then work on longer term projects, such as how we detect and handle plagiarism, though a single case might take all day – I have a poster on my wall for the Wiley-Hindawi journal Complexity as a metaphor for ethics cases.
RW: Are you the first person to hold this position? If so, why was it created?
MH: This is a new role, though our Head of Strategic Projects, Andrew Smeall, was holding the fort until I joined. There is an increasing perception among science journals that ethics and integrity issues have become more common and more complex in the last five years or so, something I heard said at both the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) conference earlier this year and the most recent COPE forum. I’ve been in publishing since 2003 and although we have always seen some individual authors, reviewers and editors behaving badly, the scale and nature of the problem has changed. Some of this is down to technology and openness enabling detection of poor practices – such as better plagiarism detection and more content being online and thus easily searchable, particularly when it is not hiding behind a paywall – but we’re also seeing an industrialization of misconduct. Hindawi built a system to track corrections, retractions, and claims of misconduct earlier this year and along with this formed a dedicated research integrity team, which I’m heading.
RW: What is your background, that led you to take on this role?
MH: I went into publishing after studying biology as an undergraduate at Oxford and then an MSc in Cambridge on a fruit fly disease model. Michael Ashburner in the Genetics department was an advocate of open access and this rubbed off on me; I was lucky to join the OA journal publisher BioMed Central as an editor in the early days. I quickly became interested in peer review, publication ethics and journalology and I had an eye for problems – we’d call it my “spidey sense”. After I joined PLOS in 2010 I continued to dig up cases of misconduct. We had weekly meetings about tricky cases at PLOS ONE and we formed an ethics team to improve cross-publisher processes. I’m also interested in reporting – I drafted guidelines for Western Blots and genetic association meta-analyses. My current role was attractive because it allows me to focus on a part of publishing I’ve long been interested in, but has previously been a sideline.
RW: In reviewing user stats from our site, we noticed a lot of traffic to Retraction Watch from Hindawi. When we inquired, you told us that you screen new manuscripts by running a search on our site. When did you start doing that, and why? What are you looking for?
MH: This is part of our submission screening – we don’t want to be caught napping. We may apply sanctions to authors who breach publication ethics (https://www.hindawi.com/ethics/) and evidence from outside Hindawi is taken into account. If an author has been involved in cases of misconduct we want to know and searching Retraction Watch is part of this, though we don’t automatically bar submissions from anyone mentioned on the site. We previously searched by hand and this year we built a new screening platform that auto-generates links to search RW, which is what you saw in your referrals.
RW: We’ve seen many publishers struggle with false identities – either of reviewers, or in the case of one Hindawi journal, an imposter posing as a real researcher who edited three articles before people realized what had happened. Hindawi has also had to pull multiple papers after realizing some of the reviews had been faked. What is the publisher doing to try to verify researchers’ and reviewers’ identities, to prevent additional cases?
MH: This is an area where misconduct has been industrialized. Much of publishing has operated on a system of trust and that trust is breaking down: The first reviewer faking case I heard of was from 2011, which is relatively recent. Hindawi does not use author-suggested reviewers, which offers us some protection, but as you note we were still vulnerable. From 2014 onwards we’ve put in place stricter checks to verify author, reviewer and editor identities and emails and we compare data about the different people associated with submissions. As we’re in an arms race of scammers finding holes and publishers plugging them, we need to keep details of the checks private.
RW: Recently, we reported that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued an open access publisher, OMICS Group, charging it has deceived readers about its reviewing practices, publication fees, and other issues. Did this surprise you?
MH: I wasn’t surprised: I blogged about suspect publishers as long ago as 2008, when they were dubbed “black sheep” by Gunther Eysenbach of the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Ignoring them or educating authors hasn’t worked, and action against the worst of these publishers has been a long time coming.
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