Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Scientific publisher hacked, affecting 65 papers

with 2 comments

kowsar-publishingA publisher in the Netherlands has retracted 13 published studies and withdrawn 52 that were under consideration (but not yet published) after learning that someone illegally accessed its workflows to add fake authors and manipulate text.

According to Seyyed Mohammad Miri, the founder, CEO, and managing director of Kowsar Publishing, the 13 retracted papers all included extra authors added by the same Internet Protocol (IP) address. Cyber police in Iran found the same IP address had also accessed the 52 other papers, which were in various stages of the publishing process (such as peer review) and not yet online, Miri told Retraction Watch. 

Most of the authors on the 13 retracted papers are based in institutions in Iran; some were co-authors on the 58 retractions recently issued as part of a mass clean-up by publishers BioMed Central and Springer, citing fake reviews, adding inappropriate authors, and plagiarism.

Around six or seven months ago, the affected journals — in collaboration with Kowsar, their publisher — filed a court case in Tehran, Iran against this IP address, Miri said.

The 52 unpublished papers that were withdrawn were plagued with multiple problems, Miri told us, including plagiarism, manipulation of “authors’ disclosure” and contributions statements, fake peer review, and extra authors added via the same IP address.

Around 20 days ago, the court released what Miri called a “primary decision,” ruling that there is one IP address behind the scheme. But since the Iranian court is yet to make a final decision on the case, Miri declined to reveal the IP address, nor the country it is located in. He added that he believes two or three “special people” are behind the action, noting that almost all the authors who have responded to the journal said they were unaware of the problem. 

Referring to the BMC/Springer retractions issued earlier this month, Miri, who is also a medical doctor, told us:

We believe the two cases are very similar to each other.

The journal hasn’t provided the author list of the 52 unpublished (now withdrawn) papers, but when searching for overlaps between authors of the 13 retracted studies and the 58 papers pulled by Springer and BMC, we found the following 11 researchers in common:

  • Susan Azizmohammadi, Sima Azizmohammadi, Seyyed Mohsen Pouryaghobi, Peyman Karimi Goudzari, Mohammad Davood Sharifi,  Koorosh Ahmadi,  Farzad Mehrabi,  Babak Masoumi, Banafshe Dormanesh, Amir Masoud Hashemian, and Ali Asgari.

Twelve of the 13 retractions appear in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal; the remaining paper has been pulled by the Jundishapur Journal of Microbiology. 

This isn’t the first time a publisher has been hacked: In October 2012, the same thing happened to Elsevier’s editorial system, resulting in faked peer reviews, and 11 retractions.

Here’s the retraction notice for all 13 papers:

Kowsar Publishing Company Legal Department in accordance with ethics committee of Ahvaz Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences (on behalf of editorial board of Jundishapur Journal of Microbiology – JJM) and ethics committee of Iranian Hospital in Dubai (on behalf of editorial board of Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal – IRCMJ) investigated several cases of authorship manipulations and illegal guest and gift authorship cases in 13 published (12 articles in Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal (IRCMJ) and 1 article in Jundishapur Journal of Microbiology (JJM), full list is in Table 1) and 52 accepted (but not published, Table 2) articles. The mentioned group decided to retract published items from journals and also stop the publishing process of other 52 articles and withdraw them from both journal websites. The decision was made after a close investigation about the evidences from authorship manipulation and illegal access to manuscript files and changing the text of manuscript without journal’s permission. Based on a legal case registered in court of Tehran, Iran (place of the claimed crime) and evidences provided by cyber police of Iran, journals retracted/withdraw the below mentioned articles from publication.

Table 1.

Published Articles

Table 2.

Accepted but not Published Articles

We hereby would like to request authors to respect the decision made by the journals. On the other hand, we have notified COPE, committee of publication ethics about this authorship manipulation and sent them the complete list of people and whom we think might be responsible for this scientific misconduct. All retraction notes and retracted XML packages have also been sent to PMC for removing these articles from their database. We also keep the rights for our journals and their editorial board members to follow this case legally.

As a result of this scientific misconduct, we changed a few of our authorship changes rules and regulations. The letter with complete list of changes might be found in publisher website, in the link below:

(link: http://kowsarpub.com/en/index.php/events/news/842-no-authorship-changes-after-accept)

We, Kowsar Publishing Company, completely understand our huge duty on keeping the safety of science world and publishing environment and will follow all next coming suspicious cases to guarantee that nothing same will happen again.

A complete list of the articles and authors might be found from the Tables 1 and and 2.

Here’s the list of 13 retracted papers, all of which are yet to be cited, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters:

Some authors of the retracted papers do not agree with the retraction, said Miri, but he plans to refer them to the court’s final verdict after it is released. Miri said that information letters were sent to all authors and numerous author institutions during the investigation.

As a result of the scandal, Kowsar has made a number of changes to its editorial processes, Miri noted. For instance, the publisher will no longer ask any reviewers suggested by authors to referee their papers. In the current case, fake reviewers were only suggested by authors that were added by the specific IP address to manuscripts, Miri added. Also, said Miri, journal editors can no longer allow any changes to author lists after papers have been accepted. Kowsar staff will now check each paper for plagiarism at multiple stages of the submission and publication process, and scan how papers change after submission to the final stages before publication, he explained.

We’ve so far counted well over 300 cases of faked, rigged, and compromised peer review; here’s our 2014 Nature feature on the phenomenon if you need a bit more background. 

Kowsar Publishing is listed on librarian Jeffrey Beall’s list of potential, possible, or probable predatory” scholarly publishers.

According to Science, the number of publications from Iranian scientists has increased 20-fold since 1979 — in part due to a rise in a “shady market” for selling papers to anyone with cash to spare.

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.

Comments
  • John Doe November 20, 2016 at 4:08 am

    So the stakes are getting higher. I wonder when we see the first big data breach affecting a major publisher?

  • Jane Brown January 17, 2017 at 11:43 am

    It seems out of context to say that Iranian publications have increased 20-fold since 1979; publications in all countries have increased drastically since then, and this statistic does nothing to indicate whether Iranian publications have increased more or less than publications from other countries.

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.