Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

7 signs a scientific paper’s authorship was bought

with 18 comments


Maria Sol Bernardez Sarria

Peggy Mason

Peggy Mason

Did you know there is a black market for scientific papers? Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of authors purchasing a spot on the author list of papers-for-sale – and the better the journal, the higher the price. This worrisome trend has been on the minds of Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago and Maria Sol Bernardez Sarria of Yale University, formerly associated with the Ethics Committee of the Society for Neuroscience, which publishes the Journal of Neuroscience (Mason as Chair from 2013 to 2015, and Bernardez Sarria as assistant). In this capacity, they regularly scanned several websites and journals for ethics-related information, and developed an approach that might give away sold authorship.

In November 2013, we happened upon a Science news item entitled China’s Publication Bazaar by Mara Hvistendahl (a story also well-covered by Charles Seife in 2014 in Scientific American). Hvistendahl described a situation where people were selling authorship on manuscripts that were intended to be published in journals listed in Thomson Reuters’ Scientific Citation Index (SCI). The author explains that Chinese students and faculty felt under so much pressure to publish in a SCI journal that a black market arose for “papers-for-sale.” Apparently, agencies in China work with authors of manuscripts that are conditionally accepted (in revision) at SCI journals and academics in need of authorship on such publications. Authorship on manuscripts in revision is offered to those with the money to pay. The cost goes up with the prestige of the journal and authorship position.

We were alarmed at this new method of fraud, worried that it could infiltrate the Journal of Neuroscience. The Ethics Committee immediately decided to run a pilot study to determine if we could identify papers where authorship may have been sold. Given the modus operandi described by Hvistendahl, where authors are added after a manuscript revision, the inclusion criterion for our pilot study was manuscript resubmissions that involved author changes. We set no geographical restriction or filter; even though this fraud tactic was identified in China, it may exist in other countries.

As was true of the entire Committee, the study operated independently of the Journal of Neuroscience’s editorial process; the editorial process for manuscripts that were examined was not affected by the pilot study.

Following extensive deliberation, we came up with a list of criteria to screen in the pilot:

  1. A cover letter that is substantially worse in grammar, spelling and writing quality than the accompanying manuscript.
  2. Few shared co-authored papers between combinations of authors
  3. Few authored papers for individual authors
  4. Few to no citations of papers by individual co-authors in the manuscript’s bibliography
  5. An absence of previous publications by one or more co-authors in the field of the manuscript
  6. The same email address used for multiple authors
  7. Textual overlap with other papers (aka plagiarized text)

As an aside – we hope that by identifying some of these criteria, we do not inspire paper mills to start changing their tactics to avoid detection by, for example, writing cover letters. Because of such considerations, it is likely that the list of warning signs will have to be modified over time.

We also considered the host server of the authors’ email addresses. We specifically speculated that addresses at Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, and their foreign equivalents could be indicative of a fraudulent manuscript. However, we found that the use of non-institutional email addresses is too widespread to make it a useful criterion. We concluded that non-institutional email addresses are present in many legitimate manuscripts and institutional email addresses are present in at least some suspected fraudulent manuscripts. We were also aware that certain criteria (2-5) would be common for early career scientists or trainees. Therefore, positive identification of these criteria for a first author only, was not sufficient to raise suspicion.

Lacking investigative power, we had no way to determine the efficacy of our methods. However, we did find that virtually all of the manuscripts had few or none of the features listed whereas a few manuscripts had a large number of the features. This distribution suggests that there are at least two types of manuscripts:  Those that are the collaborative work of the authors listed, and those that are the product of only a subset of the authors. We offer these ideas up to the community, as they appear not to produce false positives and may correctly detect at least some true positives.

Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.

Written by Alison McCook

October 24th, 2016 at 9:30 am

  • Dave Fernig October 24, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Non-Institutional e-mail addresses often reflect poor institutional infrastructure and also the fact that these are portable, so young researchers will often use these so they remain countable once they have moved on.

    • Diane Strode November 1, 2016 at 8:30 pm

      Yes, you are absolutely right. I, for example, use a forwarding address which is permanently provided by the university where I did my undergrad degree. This is because I have changed academic institutes over the years and as soon as you leave a place that email address is no longer valid.

  • Peter Apps October 24, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Is this kind of purchased authorship much worse than senior staff insisting that their names are on papers that they made no intellectual input to, simply on the basis that they raised funds ?

    Would the answer be different if the real authors used the bogus author’s payment to fund their research ?

    • Rachael Dunlop October 24, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Hahahaha! Good point Peter 😉

    • Anna Carter October 24, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Nice observation. I think the latter case is a tad bit worse (also sad), but regardless, those two issues should be considered separately. In the first case, a senior researcher has contributed [financially, if not academically] to get the research done and in a publishable state. In the second case, the financial contribution comes only after the results are in revision and so can’t be applied to that publication (maybe a subsequent one, but not the one already submitted). A funded senior researcher doesn’t need to bribe their way onto a publication, and someone who needs publications so badly that they are tempted to commit fraud doesn’t have the funding to contribute to the actual research. The first is ethically questionable, absolutely, but detecting it would require a completely different algorithm, and remedying it has to be done at a different level as well.

    • Doctor Ambient October 24, 2016 at 8:20 pm

      Yes. And yes. But somewhat irrelevant. Anyone who works in science knows that it is all capitalism and money raising to keep things going. There is no research without funds. Full stop. No magical utopia where the best ideas win and when something good is thought up, by anyone, it is magically funded to the extent necessary. Funding matters. And getting funding takes time. So I have much less of a problem with a senior–funding–author being added than paying a flat-out fee for inclusion. And to your point, yes if the people who gave money for inclusion were to give the money beforehand to fund the research, I think I would have less of a problem with it. Sorry if you thought your point was clear, but it is not so clear to me. I live on soft money, and without my bosses spending most of their hours getting funding I would be unemployed and my ideas would never exist, much less be published.

      But I think your point is kind of irrelevant. Labs with senior investigators who bring in the money are rarely, if ever, places that have lots of fully independent thinkers working in them. They are groups. And groups have personalities. People are picked to work there, and that picking matters. The selection makes the place the sort of place where the ideas can even appear in the first place. Maybe it is because I reject the libertarian slogan of “I made this!!” but I have never seen an idea that was truly sui generis, completely independent of the place or the lab or the group. The senior professors/researchers shape their labs and groups even if they are less active on the day-to-day. And that is a contribution. Money counts. No money, no research to begin with!

      But that said I have never met the “senior staff” you and some others describe, the ones who contribute nothing and ask for everything. If you have specific stories of this I would like to hear them. But in my life/experience and among my friends these non-contribution credit grabbers are extremely rare.

      • Peter Apps January 18, 2017 at 1:59 am

        I have to bounce your “irrelevant” back at you , because the scenarios that you describe do not fit the narrow specifications that I included in mine; “that they made no intellectual input to, simply on the basis that they raised funds ?”

        And I have more sense than to be telling stories out of school, thank you very much.

  • Anonymous October 24, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Once a middle man (through an email) offered me $1,500 for writing a paper on a topic provided by an “author” AND having it accepted at a journal from a list. Obviously, I declined.

    Honestly, besides the obvious issues with the ethics of it, $1500 is a joke of an offer for doing all the work and not getting any credit, while the “author” uses it to get tenure and/or promotion with an lifetime annuity inform for tenure or a salary raise. It seems that markets for academic ghost writing are not efficient — exploits the ghost writers with significant gains for “authors”. May be there is a paper to be written — “Economics of black market for academic papers: a ghost writer’s dilemma.”

  • Dean October 24, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    As a proofreader for hire, I read “guide for authors” documents from many, many journals, to help the clients format their manuscript to the requirements of these journals. All the journals say that they do not accept changes to the author list. So how can these people change their author list once the paper enters revision stage?

    • anon October 24, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      What do you mean by revision stage? I understood that what happens is that after the first referee reports, which are positive but suggest some changes/additions, the paper would be revised according to the suggestions and new author(s) would be added before resubmission (because they ‘helped’ with the new parts of the paper). I don’t think most journals forbid changing the author list for resubmission. On the other hand, if the paper is accepted by the editor, I agree that changing the list of authors is not allowed.

  • alexander October 24, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I think to detect such fraud is difficult if not impossible task if one uses only “public” information.

    Besides bogus authors, there are many other possibilities which satisfy above list of criteria:

    “A cover letter that is substantially worse in grammar, spelling and writing quality than the accompanying manuscript.”. This can happen when an article is written (or edited) by a senior scientist (SS) and the submission, with writing the cover letter. etc., was done by a junior scientist (JS), such as PhD student, post-doc, etc.

    “Few shared co-authored papers between combinations of authors”. Can happen with one SS in the list of authors.

    “Few authored papers for individual authors”. A paper is written by JS only?

    “Few to no citations of papers by individual co-authors in the manuscript’s bibliography” Most of papers, especially in social sciences, end up being uncited.

    “An absence of previous publications by one or more co-authors in the field of the manuscript”. Can be a first publication of a PhD student. Possibly with other PhD students and SS.

    “The same email address used for multiple authors”. In some journals only e-mail of a corresponding author is required.

    “Textual overlap with other papers (aka plagiarized text)”. I think this situation quite often happens with genuine “authors”.

  • Ken Pimple October 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    It’s so much easier to be ethical when you publish as a humanist (like me). It has long seemed to me that humanists don’t poach on each other because we want to write what we find most interesting, which almost always has an idiosyncratic twist that no one else wants to imitate.

    On a more serious tone, this problem is perpetuated by the piecework standard of science. Whether you’re paid by the number of socks you darn or the number of papers you publish, you have a strong incentive to do a quick job and to damn with quality.

    • Peggy Mason October 24, 2016 at 8:34 pm

      I agree with you Ken. The brilliant albeit deeply depressing article by Smaldino and McElreath elaborate on your point in painstaking detail.

      • Anonymous October 24, 2016 at 9:25 pm

        I disagree with some of the values tested in Table 1 of that paper. For example, some of the relative values for some of the parameters are grossly disproportional. In particular, the “pay-off for having novel result fail to replicate” with a negative 100 value does not necessarily reflect a sad truth about publishing, namely that a negative or unreplicable finding can easily be cited again and again, i.e., the flawed methodology might not necessarily be used, but the flawed paper could most definitely be cited.

  • Bob October 24, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    I’m what the Neuroscientist authors would describe as an SS. I have been an author of a number of (perfectly legit.) papers that would fail most of their criteria. That’s OK, so long as the criteria are used for a screening process _only_. If the failure had led to a query from the coordinating editor, it would have been simple to resolve the situation in a satisfactory way (for example “additional author x, a new MS student, was deputed to run the additional experiments requested by the reviewers, as the first author had completed her studies and no longer had time to work on the project”). In such a situation, it’s essential that the person tasked with determining the acceptability of the response be a subject matter expert, rather than a publishing professional, because judging the validity of the response will in many cases require subject expertise.

    However the criteria are sufficiently broad that they will identify many false positives. In particular, they are heavily weighted against researchers in developing or recently-developed countries. So it’s essential that any decisions not be based on the criteria alone. Due to complex cultural sensitivities the editors may not be aware of, any letter requesting clarification needs to be very carefully drafted, and in particular must not come across as an accusation. This is harder than it sounds, as the letter has to take into account that the recipient may have limited awareness of the subtleties of non-technical English usage.

    It’s very pleasing that the use of non-institutional emails was excluded from the criteria. The growing insistence on institutional emails will have pernicious effects. Despite holding institutional positions for many years, I have used gmail exclusively since its inception because of the clunkiness of university email servers, difficulty accessing them while travelling, and latterly (working in a country where I had limited understanding of the language) gmail’s translation capabilities. Insistence on institutional servers will also damage the continuing tradition of the independent scientist. For many years, one of the leading, and most creative, researchers in my field was an investor who had already made his fortune and wanted to use his time productively. Would he have been prepared to suffer the pains of university bureaucracies just to get an institutional byline? Knowing him, it seems unlikely.

    • Maria S Bernardez Sarria October 25, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Dear Bob, I agree that the above criteria should be used for screening only, and that if one manuscript were to fail multiple criteria, then a more in-depth inquiry would be warranted. I hope that if someone were to employ the strategy we developed, they would also contact the authors and request a clarification!

  • Arvind October 25, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    5.An absence of previous publications by one or more co-authors in the field of the manuscript
    Is it unethical to start a new work not matching to earlier publications? Can’t someone come with a new idea and start work which really does not match with previous paper of whole team?

  • Mary Kuhner October 29, 2016 at 11:24 am

    5.An absence of previous publications by one or more co-authors in the field of the manuscript
    Is it unethical to start a new work not matching to earlier publications? Can’t someone come with a new idea and start work which really does not match with previous paper of whole team?

    I don’t think anyone is claiming that any of these are “unethical”. They are warning flags. Presence of multiple flags is a reason to look more closely at the paper.

    I am a co-author on exactly such a paper: I worked my whole career in phylogenetics and here I am on the author list of my very first cancer paper, with no previous publications with any of my co-authors. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind a polite letter saying “Really?”–it would be easy enough to explain my role on the paper, and there are plenty of ways to corroborate it.

    I think journals *should* ask these questions. One perhaps unappreciated benefit is that it reduces the pressure on scientists to offer “gift” authorships–I’ve felt this a few times, I don’t like it, it’s very helpful to be able to say “I can’t do that, the journal will insist on only authors with concrete contributions.”

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.