A spokesperson for Elsevier told us that the journals are in the process of retracting all 26 papers affected by the “peer-review manipulation” and “unexplained authorship irregularities.” Most share one corresponding author, a physical science researcher based in Iran.
So far, 13 of the papers were retracted this year: 10 in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy and three in Results in Physics. Of the remaining 13 papers, four others were published in Results in Physics, four in Journal of Crystal Growth, three in Journal of Alloys and Compounds, and one each in International Journal of Thermal Sciences and Fusion Engineering and Design.
The papers, submitted and published between late 2014 and 2017, are from a group of researchers in Iran; A. Salar Elahi is corresponding author on 24 of them. Elahi, based at Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Iran, is also corresponding author on two papers retracted from Springer journals earlier this year for plagiarism.
Publishers have been aware of the problem of fake reviews since at least 2014, and several major publishers—including Springer, BioMed Central and Elsevier—have retracted a total of hundreds of papers because of peer review manipulation.
We asked the publisher how the fake reviews were missed during peer review, as well as how (and when) the peer review manipulation was discovered. A spokesperson explained that the editors of two of the journals alerted Elsevier “when they could not validate the email addresses of reviewers suggested by the authors upon submission:”
Elsevier then conducted a thorough investigation of all historical submissions from this author group to all Elsevier journals. Based on the evidence provided, the various Editors decided that retraction was appropriate in 26 cases where the peer review process had been compromised. In addition, in several cases, the authorship lists had been changed without agreement with the Editor.
The 13 retraction notices are almost identical. Here’s the notice for the paper, “Electromagnetic flux density simulation for the circular and D-shaped cross section superconducting tokamaks,” which was submitted Sept. 14 2016 and published Dec. 31, 2016:
This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.
After a thorough investigation, the Editor has concluded that the acceptance of this article was based upon the positive advice of three illegitimate reviewer reports. The reports were submitted from email accounts which were provided to the journal as suggested reviewers during the submission of the article. Although purportedly real reviewer accounts, the Editor has concluded that these were not of appropriate, independent reviewers.
This manipulation of the peer-review process represents a clear violation of the fundamentals of peer review, our publishing policies, and publishing ethics standards. Apologies are offered to the reviewers whose identities were assumed and to the readers of the journal that this deception was not detected during the submission process.
In addition, no reason has been provided for the addition of the author names B. Mahdavipour, A. Salar Elahi and M. Ghoranneviss to the authorship of the revised article.
The paper, published in International Journal of Hydrogen Energy and retracted on Nov. 28, lists Elahi as corresponding author and has not yet been cited, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. Elahi has 162 papers indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, the majority of which has been cited between 0 and 10 times.
The spokesperson confirmed that the problematic reviews in the 26 papers were from author-suggested reviewers.
We asked whether the six journals were systematically checking author-suggested reviewers. The spokesperson told us:
The practice of some journals to consider the comments of a reviewer suggested by the author reflects a dilemma that faces all journals in an increasingly competitive environment: the challenge of finding reviewers with the expertise, time and willingness to review.
The spokesperson also said:
The recommended best practice is to always ensure that accepted papers are reviewed by additional reviewers who were not suggested by author. … We instruct authors to always provide institutional email addresses for suggested reviewers and our editors to exercise caution if using reviewers with non-institutional emails who they do not personally know.
We contacted Elahi to ask about the peer review and duplication issues. He did not respond to any of our questions, simply asking that we do not report the case.
Fake peer review has affected publishing worldwide; after all 26 papers have been retracted, authors from Iran will have contributed more than 100 retractions for this reason.
Note: Please see an update to this story.
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. If you have comments or feedback, you can reach us at email@example.com.