Editor: “Close to 10% of the papers we receive show some sign of academic misconduct”

elsevierThe latest issue of Elsevier’s Editors’ Update is part one of a two-part series on publishing ethics. It contains a bevy of articles on various issues that will be be familiar to Retraction Watch readers, from bias to research misconduct. (Not surprisingly, given the sheer number of journals they publish, Elsevier shows up regularly on Retraction Watch.)

In one of the pieces, Applied Surface Science editor in chief Henrik Rudolph pulls no punches:

Close to 10% of the papers we receive show some sign of academic misconduct, but since the total number of submissions is increasing, the absolute number is also rising. The most common issue we see is too large an overlap with previously published material, i.e. plagiarism. Cases are evenly divided between self-plagiarism and regular plagiarism. These submissions are most often identified in the editorial phase (by the managing editor or editor) and are rejected before they are sent out for review. iThenticate is an important instrument for detecting academic misconduct, but often common sense is an equally important instrument: do certain parts of the paper look much more polished language-wise than the rest? Has the spelling suddenly changed from UK English to US English? We have even had cases where authors have copied the spelling mistakes in the papers they have plagiarized. If it looks fishy it probably is fishy.

From the introductory editorial, here’s what you’ll find in the issue:

Part I of our Ethics Special opens with a Guest Editorial by our SVP and General Counsel for the legal department, Mark Seeley. He reflects on the rise in publishing ethics cases and talks frankly about his own thoughts on how they should be addressed.

In Understanding and addressing research misconduct we hear from an Elsevier lawyer and a publisher about what constitutes research misconduct and the roles editors and publishers have to play once a case has been identified.

Two editors from the journal Biochemical Pharmacology explore research bias – and its implications – in Bias in research: the rule rather than the exception?.

We also hear from the editor community in Research misconduct – three editors share their stories. Our interview subjects discuss the ethics challenges in their fields and how they are working to combat them.

It’s not only authors who can find themselves crossing ethical boundaries and in The ethics pitfalls that editors face we examine two of the most common editor pitfalls – undisclosed conflicts of interest and citation manipulation.

Lessons learnt at the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity highlights the key points one of Elsevier’s publishing ethics experts took home with her from this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity.

We complete the edition with Editor in the Spotlight – Professor Margaret Rees. As Editor-in-Chief of Maturitas and current Secretary of COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics), she draws on her extensive ethics experience to answer our questions.

Part 2 will include

a range of articles designed to keep you up to date with the publishing ethics support on offer. Features include an interview with the current Chair of COPE, tips on dealing with the media, information on how we are working with authors and reviewers to train them on good ethical practice and a range of practical advice (and an offer of free software!) from The Office of Research Integrity.

12 thoughts on “Editor: “Close to 10% of the papers we receive show some sign of academic misconduct””

  1. Anybody who has had an opportunity to publish in an Elsevier journal has undoubtedly dealt with Elsevier reviewer and editor incompetence, company mismanagement (especially at the Indian side involved with proof development), pseudo-ethics and contradictory authorship guidelines preached by this publisher will know that this is nothing less than a feeble attempt by Mr. Seeley to save face amidst increasing incompetence at and criticisms of Elsevier. A retraction from an Elsevier journal indicates loopholes, weaknesses and incompetence (to some extent) by the publisher. Of course, the truth of what I say will be immediately met with a moderation request. What better way to squash critics than by sending your top legal counsel to represent the “ethics” of the company? Let there be free speech on this blog and allow critical analysis of Elsevier from the perspectives of the authors who publish there. Let there not be fear of their power and their pseudo-values, sold as marketing attempt to salvage their image in the light of increasing retractions.

    1. I must defend Elsevier a little bit here. I have published papers in several publishers, including Elsevier. I have also spotted misconduct on papers from several publishers, Elsevier included. I was well assessored by Elsevier both when authoring papers and when pointing out published issues. They took good care of proof versions and responded to inquisitive emails, and have taken action against irregular papers. There is sure a lot of bad editors in Elsevier, but I get the feeling they are doing just OK. Wiley-B was fine for me too.

    2. Although I have co-authored ca. 70 papers in Elsevier journals related to chemistry, I can’t endorse the above comment made by JATdS, especially regarding the “Elsevier reviewer and editor incompetence”. Of course Elsevier releases questionable articles (yes, I mean articles published in “Chaos, Solitons and Fractals”, or the now infamous Sivasubramanian’s proof of parallel postulate); of course some comments done by reviewers are puzzling or strange; of course, sometimes a figure which consumed many hours of hard work is not released with the bright and glorious colors I expected to see in the published pdf… However, I feel that the situation is more or less identical with Springer, Wiley, the ACS, APS, and so on.
      Elsevier is certainly criticable, but certainly not for the level of incompetence of editors. For instance, if I clearly remember, the boycott petition successfully launched two years ago by Tim Gowers, Wendelin Werner and Terence Tao was a protest against the bundling arrangements and subscription agreements promoted by Elsevier, and had nothing to do with academic issues.
      Last point: the proofing system at Elsevier has been tremendously improved over the 5-10 last years. Work realized by copy editors is difficult, technically complex, and probably tedious in many aspects. Their efforts must be acknowledged.

      1. Sylvaine, I don’t disagree with you. But I guess then this will depend on the field of study and on personal experiences. In my field, there is a serious bias and incompetence, again and again. Complaints fall on deaf ears, there is no independent inquiry, no fairness, just me vs them. I am not saying that there is total incompetence. I agree with PR “There is sure a lot of bad editors in Elsevier”. A lot can be said about this, and efforts can be acknowledged. I admit that I have some excellent peer reviews for some of my papers published with Elsevier, but some are shameful. And the editors and the publishers, even after complaining, showed no apology, no remorse, no conscience. This is fundamentally wrong. It is these rotten apples that need to be thrown out. Kindly note, nowhere in my blog post do I ever claim that ALL, or even most, of the Elsevier editors are problematic. Well, if you want to compare to predatory publishers, for example, then Elsevier will appear as a pillar of ethics. So, in some ways things are relative. My views are relative to yours, because we are from different fields and because our experiences are different. I should say, however, that Elsevier, as the largest science publisher, should be held fully accountable. Not only because they hold almost 12 million records (the most amongst all publishers, followed next by Springer with about 8 million), but because if they want to tout their journals with high Impact Factors, then their “high level” journals must be held up to the highest standards, too. Regarding the Gowers-led boycott, well, that had to be a flop. Simply because they focused on money. The problem with that boycott was that it was not based on academic reasons. Whatever caused its end will not solve the fundamental problems. When we start to have scientists who are willing to come forward with clear evidence of the sloppy academics, biased peer reviews, profiling, or other non-academic cases by Elsevier journal editors, their boards, their peer review system, then I say that Tim may have a chance to restart what he wanted to achieve originally. I say that retractions are proof of editorial oversight and incompetence, and have been arguing this point for some time now. Not entirely, but partially. Thus, the publishers deserve to get the consequences of oversight, not some special issues on “ethics” led by their legal counsel and company No. 2. Regarding other publishers, my PERSONAL experience tells me that Wiley is best in dealing with quality control. Absolutely strict. Great. However, Taylor and Francis and Springer are many-fold worse than Elsevier. The problem is, the elitist journals, most of them, with high Impact Factors, are published by this cluster of 4 publishers, so either we speak out against what we each individually perceive as being injustices by the publishers, as authors and as scientists, or we face this mockery. I can tell you now that many colleagues don’t speak out for one reason. Out of fear.

    3. There are few fundamental issues with the academic publishing:

      (1) The system is based on incentives structure which de facto promotes misconduct (plagiarism, data manipulation/falsification, etc.), so, otherwise normal people, do (repeatedly) the wrong thing.
      As Stapel (holding one of the world records for long-time misconduct) openly admits:
      “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition.”
      “Normal people go to the edge to get that money.”

      Forms of “innocent” misconduct:
      (i) It has become a norm for academics to form groups where they endlessly site (i.e. promote) one another in order to build up more credit (publications/citations) with the only purpose to get more grants.
      (ii) Some groups go one step further and establish new journals in order to make it easier to publish (more of) their (often fraudulent) papers.

      (2) Unlike a discrete_event misconduct (for example, driving drunk, with high speed, crossing intersection on red, crashing, and injuring someone) which can be covered-up (and berried/forgotten), academic misconduct, once being published, becomes CONTINUOUS and PERMANENT, but more importantly, the misconduct is VISIBLE to anyone at any time.

      I am astonished to see how otherwise highly intelligent people are so naive to think that their misconduct will not be detected, especially in the era of internet. And I am even more astonished to see that their superiors are even more naive to think that their cover-up will be successful! (may be they think that because universities are independent from the state, the state will never demand accountability)

      (3) The question here is whether the publishers will be so naive to think that they can get away (forever) with tolerating editors who (stubbornly) refuse to Do_The_Right_Thing in cases of obvious and straightforward misconduct.

      As analogy, after decades of ignorance and cover-up of discrete_events (child sexual abuse) Australia has established Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, which will look at:
      “how organisations have managed and responded to claims of sexual abuse and other associated forms of abuse and neglect”

      In conclusion, my humble advice to all publishers:
      Do_The_Right_Thing A.S.A.P. or face the consequences later.

    4. I concur with you about Elsevier’s recent service quality. SInce they have delocalised their operations to India (to save money, of course), I have noticed that manuscript processing are basically in the hands of incompetent, poorly-trained, so-called editors.
      The worst is that I do not see any attempt to solve the issue,and furthermore journal’s editors do not seem to care.

  2. Publish or perish. These sorts of developments are an inevitable part of the incentive structure we’re created for researchers.

    Retraction watch does a great job of highlighting these problems, but in my opinion the only way out of this is to create better incentives and give researchers other ways to contribute. That’s what figshare is doing with datasets and what we’re doing with peer-review:

    1. Publons… sounds interesting, kinda like a commercial version of PubPeer for the physical sciences.

      However, in a post-Snowden/NSA leak world, having a privacy page and a terms of service page that both say “coming soon” (despite the site being up for several months) might raise some questions. Can I ask why you’re looking to hire “sales staff?” What exactly is the “product” here, remembering the adage that if something is being given away for free, then the consumer (and their ears/eyes/data) is the product?

      1. Hey Paul,

        Our goal is to make peer-review and peer-reviewers first class citizens in academic publishing. That includes both pre- and post-publication review. Pre-publication means working with journals to solve problems (of the sort described in this post), and working with journals means sales.

        Happy to talk about this in detail — just flick me an email.

        Thanks for taking a look at Publons.


        ps. You’re right about our privacy page. I’ll get onto that.

  3. I found this line from the article by the second editor particularly revealing: “While cases [of misconduct] are sometimes identified by reviewers, most frequently they are discovered following complaints by colleagues or peers.”

  4. I’ve only had one interaction with Elsevier, and it was certainly positive.
    Obvious plagiarism was reported to Elsevier, they diligently followed the published process and ended up retracting the paper, despite the senior author long-time editor-in-chief trying to save it. That has to be an awkward circumstance for a publisher.

    Later, it was found that the E-i-C had bypassed peer review, by doing a quick review himself of a topic outside his expertise, accepting a paper from an old friend in less than a week.

    One can never know if this is related, but the former E-i-C no longer has that position.

    That was far better performance than Wiley, which, given detailed evidence of large plagiarism by co-E-i-Cs in 2 papers they wrote for their own journal, stonewalled the complaints, then let them revise the papers and replace them, with no admission of problem.

    Numerous letters to Wiley Board, executives seemed to do no good.
    Finally, a year later, they were quietly replaced (by 2 very credible) people.

    So, I only have that one data point for Elsevier, but they performed fine, wahtever else they might or might not do.

    1. A sample size of 1 is also equal to an error of 1. What we need are scientists who have dealt with extensively with dozens of journals, not only by Elsevier, but with other publishers, too. This cannot be an independent, absolute praise or criticism based on a sample size of 1. It must be a relative critique, or praise, based on a sample size of many (several dozen would be ideal), limiting thus the pool of professionals who can TRULY comment based on experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.