Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

How fake peer review happens: An impersonated reviewer speaks

with 9 comments

springerEarlier this month, BioMed Central and Springer announced that they were retracting nearly 60 papers for a host of related issues, including manipulating the peer-review process. Recently, we were contacted by one of the reviewers who was impersonated by some of the authors of the retracted papers.

The scientist wants to remain anonymous, but provided us with emails that supported his version of events.

In case you need a refresher on the “events” that took place: The two publishers recently pulled 58 papers from authors mostly based in Iran, citing evidence of plagiarism, and manipulating the peer-review process and allocating authorship positions inappropriately.

It all started with a seemingly simple question, the scientist told us:

Approximately 10 months ago I was contacted by one of the publishers concerned with a question whether I had reviewed three of the offending papers, using a gmail e-mail address with a variation of my name. I had never seen any of those papers before, and they are not in my field of expertise.

Surprised to learn that his name had been co-opted without his knowledge, the researcher decided to check if any other similar instances could be found:

A google search with my name then revealed a reviewer acknowledgements page of a journal belonging to the other publisher, where a reviewer with my name but listed with another nationality was thanked for reviewing in at least two separate years. Since my name is not a common one (there is no other scientist currently listed in the literature with the same combination of first and last names) I contacted the second publisher to raise the concern that their journal had also accepted papers after fake reviewing.

It wasn’t just two papers, the researcher told us:

The results of the investigations suggest that at least five of these nearly 60 retracted papers received at least one fake review each, using the fake identity based on my name.

Indeed, he supplied emails from one of the publishers corroborating that their investigation was connected to his correspondence over his name being used as a fake reviewer.

The journals concerned could have easily prevented what happened, he told us:

While the publishers should be commended for taking appropriate action to investigate and then retract the offending publications, the editors of these journals are not entirely free of blame in this case. Some minimal due diligence in reviewer selection would have revealed that none of those five manuscript submissions were in my field of expertise, and that my home institution is not located in the country apparently indicated in the fake affiliation. Which raises the question what consequences (if any) such events have for the editors concerned?

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Written by Alison McCook

November 15th, 2016 at 9:30 am

  • Yasas November 15, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Editors should insist that reviewers need to create their journal account using their institutional email address. Otherwise, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a real or fake gmail address can review academic papers.

    • Rob Siebers November 15, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      Not all scientists may have an institutional email. For instance, if they are retired or many from Asian countries. Might be better for editors to ask the nominated reviewer to supply a list of his/her publications in the specified field of research so that the editor can determne whether the nominated reviewer has the required experience. My peronal believe is that editors should not ask for potential reviewers from submitting authors. The editor should rely on the journal’s editorial board members to suggest potential reviewers.

    • herr doktor bimler November 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      So no-one can be an expert without an institutional affiliation?

    • Wim Crusio November 21, 2016 at 9:30 am

      I use a Yahoo address and have done so for about 12 years now. I have an institutional email address (in fact, I have several, as they change every few years here), but the Yahoo one is just more convenient (for example, allowing much larger attachments). The solution to fake reviewers can be rather easily solved, I think, by linking ORCID identifiers to reviewer accounts. This establishes one’s identity regardless of one’s email address. If the journals mentioned above had done this, they would have rapidly discovered that the person(s) they were communicating with were faked.

  • anon November 15, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I’m still surprised that when I submit a paper for review many journals want me to supply the contact info for suggested reviewers. Given the institutional affiliation, it takes two minutes to google for the real contact info.

    • TL November 15, 2016 at 11:56 am

      This is hardly the case with academic entities in some countries. Web sites, if they actually exist and contain up-to-date contact information for all faculty members, might not be in English and sometimes not even in the Latin alphabet, making “Googling” impossible. It seems unfair to disqualify a large proportion of Chinese academics from being reviewers based on such criteria.

      • MF November 15, 2016 at 12:22 pm

        If the suggested reviewer is a bona fide scientist in a STEM field, he/she should at the very least have a verified record of publications in English, with a verifiable e-mail address used as corresponding author for those publications. And that information IS available by Web search on Google or on other platforms.

    • US Rao December 13, 2016 at 9:58 am

      In the first place, the Journal should NEVER ask potential reviewers’ names. Obviously, the real scientists (not the kissing fellows) only know few high integrity colleagues. On the top of it, these good fellows would NEVER want their competitors (working in the same sub specialty) to review their work. Journal editorial board don’t recruit highly qualified administrative staff who are knowledgeable in science. Journals, face the reality!

  • shirley ainsworth November 15, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I have come across many cases where the corresponding author, particularly a big shot as measured by number of publications, does not include an email in their articles, only a street address. Presumably to reduce correspondence.
    It is just not that easy.

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