The Peer Review Scam: How authors are reviewing their own papers

nature nov coverYesterday, we reported on the discovery by BioMed Central that there were about 50 papers in their editorial system whose authors had recommended fake peer reviewers. Those “reviewers” had submitted reviews of a number of manuscripts, and five of the papers had been published. (BMC posted a blog examining the case this morning.)

For some Retraction Watch readers, the elements of the story may have seemed familiar. Fake reviews — often involving self-peer review — have been the basis for a growing number of retractions.

As it happens, we’ve been working for a few months on a feature for the news section of Nature on the larger phenomenon. In the piece, out today and titled “The Peer Review Scam,” we write:

In the past 2 years, journals have been forced to retract more than 110 papers in at least 6 instances of peer-review rigging. What all these cases had in common was that researchers exploited vulnerabilities in the publishers’ computerized systems to dupe editors into accepting manuscripts, often by doing their own reviews. The cases involved publishing behemoths Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa, and they exploited security flaws that — in at least one of the systems — could make researchers vulnerable to even more serious identity theft.

While this is a story about a technological vulnerability, the fact that many journals ask authors to recommend reviewers plays a big role. You can read the whole thing here.

47 thoughts on “The Peer Review Scam: How authors are reviewing their own papers”

  1. A great paper with good insight. I predict that ORCID will be the last brick to cement Big Brother in science publishing. Most online submission systems still have it as an alternative, but at the rate things are going, it will soon be a forced step, and no longer a choice. I had felt something emerging when ORCID first was launched, but this story now cements my fears. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the publishers trying to prevent fraud and by centralizing accounts – like the current Elsevier “consolidated profile” – the risks will be minimized. What concerns me is that gradually, our rights and our (= scientists) choices are being shrunken by the day. Again, I state that this is one more step to the increased militarization of science. One of these days, I’m going to have to quit science and sell ice-creams instead. This aggressive system that we are exposed to daily wears one down: it’s like an examination by a secret service-like agency submitting a paper nowadays.

  2. I have many colleagues that recommend collaborators and ex-students as reviewers. They admit to this in intimate conversations, and actually in the Brazilian platforms of public CVs is gets intuitive to check, as users are encouraged to declare to which journals they have recently acted as peers (thus one compares with date of acceptance of ex-tutor’s paper). This is essentially not so different from reviewing your own paper, as also they can chat before submitting the review. Another common practice is bypassing peer-review completely by submitting to a collaborator/friend from the editorial board. I have unfortunately seen this last practice much more upfront that I would expect. These are just some of many other obvious reasons I really do not approve of pre-publication peer review as any guarantee for scientific robustness.

  3. Never understood why one has to recommend in the era of twitter/google/peer network tools. Doesn’t seem like much work for an editor.

  4. Well, until the “paper” is published it ain’t a paper, it’s a manuscript. I agree that the editorial software may be hacked, that peer-review process may be subverted by the introduction of “fake” reviewers or by any number of other infractions of the supposedly critical and unbiased evaluation of the manuscripts by the reviewers and editors. But lets not forget that these are not the reasons why there is a palpable crisis in all of the science nowadays – manifested in retractions, poor reproducibility of findings, ORI investigations, etc – these are _consequences_ of the crisis.

    At the core of the crisis is the fact that science is presently overrun by the kind of people who have no business, acumen or proper motivation to be scientists. People who go to graduate school because they didn’t make it to the med school, because they think a PhD can get J1 or H1B visa easier than a line cook – for any manner of reasons, really, other than that they have ability to do science and the drive for scientific work. These are also the people who need to fake reviewers to publish in the Journal of Vibration and Control and to fake data in order to publish in Nature.

    1. Visa may be a motivating factor for some, but it may astonish readers to learn that there are scientists who publish papers in peer-reviewed journals who do not live in the USA, nor do they wish to. Who woulda thunk it?

      1. I’d think you are picking one scenario of many I outlined to complain about because you need something to fume about. And with condescension that doesn’t really fit our match-up.

    2. Vladimir, you did get some issues wrong. Not only that not all of science is done in US.
      Why please is an MD superior to PhD? Why is a doctor in your definition a better life scientist than a biologist?
      Why do you think only children of the elites should go into science, but not those of poorer financial background, who you think should become line cooks?

      1. Лёня, seems like you have got everything I wrote wrong. Where do you see me saying anything about “elites” or “poorer financial backgrounds”? In my opinion science should be elitist, but I see elite only as a matter of merit, not background. Can’t give you a proper statistics but in my personal experience all children of Nobel prize winners make terrible scientists. Nothing more than anecdotal evidence but that’s all I have at this time. And the thing about line cooks was meant to indicate the simple truth that many of today’s scientists are equally well -or badly – suited to be line cooks as say, biochemists. Or green grocers.

        Most of the science is done in US, check Nature’s global benchmarks. And in US medical school entries are more competitive than PhD programs. Not that makes – as you assumed – MDs better scientists than PhDs. In fact they are worse. All I was noting is that PhD programs – outside of a few elite ones – mostly get medical school rejects, not kids hell-bent on science.

        1. You’re still wrong because most science is not done in the US (probably around 20-30%) is and my PhD program was definitely not elite, but out of the 20 students in my year, I don’t know a single one who was a med-school reject. Especially me, since I wasn’t even remotely considering it due to fear of blood. The others really enjoyed chemistry in their undergraduate study and decided to major in it, like me.

          1. And I have a fear of people who have a fear blood – what it have to do with anything though? Retorting a generalization with a personal story, srsly… The point I was making is that PhD programs at large aren’t competitive, whereas medical schools are. I should have just stopped at the first half of the assertion, I didn’t. And because of that everybody and his/her grandma is going to come out and tell me that they didn’t actually want to get into a med school… Doesn’t matter. The problem is that in order to get into most PhD programs all one needs to have is the price of application and a pulse.

        2. Vova, the problem has nothing to do with medicine being too difficult or PhD visas too easy to get, which probably is not the case anyway.
          There are wrong people in science, who by now may even make up the majority, but like all dishonest people they are attracted by easy cash, by the billions of funding pumped annually in life sciences. They are not losers or stupid, they are actually very smart in their own way. They simply just don’t care a bit for honest science, but only for money, career and power.

          1. Лёня, whom exactly are you arguing with? I didn’t imply that medicine was in any way difficult. What I was alluding to is that med schools have retained some appearance of competitiveness and thus some semblance of elitism, whereas PhD programs became totally egalitarian. It was the other way around in my time. And yes, visas for PhDs are much easier to get than for most other professionals – academic visas were even removed from the annual cap on H1Bs. You are wrong on the money account too – whatever billions are spent on NIH and NSF budgets, the salaries for postdocs are much lower than what one with an advanced degree can expect to fetch in industry, law or medicine. And don’t get me started on the chances of any single PhD candidate becoming a PI. Other people tackled that quite well, no need of repetition.
            The thing is that the biomedical research in its current incarnation needs a lot of cannon fodder so they let in just about anyone. Federal funding, low wages, almost no unions – a perfect sink for the overflow of college graduates (how college market dynamics affects admissions is a whole other story). Unfortunately, in all this egalitarianism the idea that “if don’t do a good job you don’t get to publish it” got replaced by a new model – “you do a crap job=you find a crap journal to publish it in”. Hell, I know people who founded crap journals to publish their crap…

          2. It is not incompetent postdocs and PhDs who run peer-review scams or found “crap journals to publish their crap”, but exclusively PIs and professors. Please check every such case if you don’t believe me.
            And those PIs, Profs and Directors are paid rather handsomely, plus they enjoy social respect and power over people. Yes, their “crap” research is driven by cheap labour, and they also tend to drive their career-prospects-conscious staff to manipulate or even fake data for their papers, which are published in journals which are sometimes very far from “crap”, using exactly the very same tricks of rigged peer-review.
            Therefore, maybe I keep misunderstanding you, but it is not the humble postdocs and PhDs from far away countries slaving for low wages in the western labs, who are the problem. It is their well-paid and well-connected bosses.

  5. Editing a journal is a lot of work, it takes half my day and I am fast. I edit Computers in Biology and Medicine (Elsevier), we get 900 submissions per year now. Please see my comment from yesterday on the 50 papers article. One thing that might help is for publishers to have an executive editor overseeing the editors-in-chiefs. A seasoned editor knows how to prevent this kind of problem. For new editors-in-chief, they really need the help of an executive editor to guide them. I know for example that PLOS hired an executive editor, as they asked me to suggest candidates. I think it is a good idea. There should never be a problem with fake reviewers or plagiarism. It should be caught on the front end. I only use one suggested reviewer at most, and that is if the address is a legitimate institutional address with his or her name as part of the address, not a gmail, yahoo, or rediffmail account for example. Still, I give less weight to suggested reviewers. I will use them to provide some extra insight. I search google to solicit referees and it takes a lot of time. But you get real referees that way, faculty members, with expertise who have written on the subject matter of the manuscript. Regarding plagiarism as a side topic, I google to check portions of the manuscript. More time involved, but I catch a lot of copying, and reject such papers without chance for resubmission. A related topic is data falsification. One way to find this is to check each version of the manuscript and the galleys to make sure the numbers don’t change. This kind of mentoring for new editors-in-chief could be done by an executive editor. I think it would be a very helpful addition at many publishing companies.

    1. Google-based editing? Not too high-tech, not high tech at all. Plagiarism in biomed science is a minor problem, compared to the bad data and bad thinking. You ain’t gonna catch these with Google. And Googling up potential reviewers is a good idea, the caveat here is that for thousands of low-impact no-legacy journals – that came out of woodwork lately – finding a good candidate for a reviewer is just the beginning. Having a good candidate agree to review for such a journal is much harder. It’s one thing to get a solicitation for a manuscript review for Science or Cell, a similar request from the Supreme International Journal for All Kinds of Biology is treated with much different attitude by those who actually are good at what they do…
      Executive editor is a very useful addition to any journal indeed. But their utility is rather limited – as I have recently learned, to my great shock and disappointment. Contrary to what the title clearly implies, it appears an executive editor can not actually execute under-performing editors or reviewers. A shame, really.

    2. Edward Ciaccio
      I only use one suggested reviewer at most, and that is if the address is a legitimate institutional address with his or her name as part of the address, not a gmail, … I search google to solicit referees …

      You should consider that a gmail address may be linked to a Google scholar account giving you all the information that you need. I, for example, stopped using my institutional email as a contact for publications and use a gmail account, because my institution is still likely to change (and our sysadmins did a bad job at protecting our email addresses from spam).

      1. Dear Dr. Wollny, sure I agree with you. When I search for reviewers I do use their gmail address if that is what they provide. It’s only when a gmail address is provided in the suggested authors list that I don’t use it. I could look it up like you say, maybe I will, but it will likely take too much time to do regularly. To keep up I must be as efficient as possible in soliciting referees. Edward

  6. Are fake peer-reviewers any worse than real peer-reviewers who were either incompetent or ignored, as in the case of the extraordinarily faulty Australian Paradox paper. The quality of the peer-review process in that case may have been compromised by the fact that the lead author also operated as the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal:

    If interested, maybe take my quick quiz on competence and integrity in research at the University of Sydney:

  7. In the Nature article, you write “The cases involved publishing behemoths Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa”. At least as of 2012, I was preparing the back-of-title page for a book published by “Routledge [which] is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business”; this suggests (unless there’s been some recombination since then) that in some sense T&F and informa (in lowercase, as required by Routledge!) are one behemoth, not two.

  8. I think Vladimir Svetlov captures the essence perfectly: the peer review is just the surface. It is precisely because the underlying motivating factor has becme money, driven in part by the IF, and by technocrats who don’t actually understand science, that we are in this mess. As I have often said, and will say again, if we boycott the main-stream publishers – the so-called behemoths – for one year and bring them to their knees, we will resolve one half of the problems, because those that are greedy, unprofessional, or plain useless, will wither away. If we were to boycot all fees to OA journals, and demand that they seek revenues through advertising rather than double-taxing scientists (tax 1 = intellect, tax 2 = APFs), then we would remove the predatory nature of the so-called “predatory” OA journals. And if we were to make scientists work voluntarily in their positions, without pay and perks for, let’s say, a year (except for research costs covered), you would also see 75% of these individuals – who are parasitizing science – wither away.

    It is precisely because the mechanisms in place are so corrupted that we have this endless cycle of scientists – a fraction of them – abusing the system, and publishers in turn abusing them: “system corruption stacking”. And, as the icing on top, the lack of openness, transparency and accountability are festering in every nook and cranny. For already a few years now, we have seen retraction notice upon retraction notice with superficialities that very rarely explain the truth about the underlying reasons for a retraction, the lawyer-infested publishers failing miserably in being fully transparent – in most cases – about the background. One has to come to RW to pull the cat out of the bag, literally. And this applies, once again, to the listed behemoths in this Nature article, even Nature itself. Take, for example, this case in a Springer journal, Biological Trace Element Research [1]. If one were to look at the expression of concern, then it would tell one story, but if we were to observe the background story, then a whole different picture would emerge. So why is the whole story not told by Springer, in this case? This reflects that, very broadly, there is a serious corrupting factor in the editorial rank-and-file, which is protected by, and embraced by, the same behemoth publishers. So, when we see the publishers screaming foul because corrupted scientists are abusing the submission or peer review system, in a way, they are getting what they deserve, simply because they created this non-fail-safe system, in the name of profit. To create a system with the basal assumption that the entire community is hnest is plain naive, or stupid. To these behemoth publishers, I say: what goes around, comes around. The S is now starting to hit the fan.

  9. More and more checking and more and more reviewing seems to just give more and more opportunities for the ‘fudging’ and slipping which, even if not exactly deceitful in itself, often adds up to deceit.
    I think we can learn from the ‘CE’ certification system which has almost completely replaced peer-review for safety-critical equipment and systems in Europe with a procedure which requires a named, identifiable and contactable (real) person to take complete and absolute personal responsibility for the accuracy of a product’s data. It works. Remember all those horror news items about dangerous electrical appliances and toys with spikes inside? All gone since peer-review was replaced by personal responsibility.

  10. Essentially, the wave of retractions caused by various forms of fraud (plagiarism, data massaging and peer review scam) are of course driven by a global world where many scientists are glamoring for recognition and publishers for profit. The question to ask is whether one should address this by demanding stronger rules, shaming fraudulent scientists and shaming publishers (see JATdS), or that one asks oneself how to encourage honest scientific culture only aiming at reducing the fraction of bad eggs rather than naively eliminating it.

    Stronger rules and stronger policing will – I my opinion – not help the change of culture and might lead to other excesses. Taking the peer review scam. Measures such as increasing the number of reviewers, reducing the number of author suggested reviewers will make the process more democratic (see also Edward Ciaccio). Having a pool of ‘professional’ reviewers who are known/selected for integrity. Adding the reviewers names to the accepted papers. This all increases transparency and the sharing of experience, akin to what you want in science. That one then better suppresses fraudulent behavior is a side-effect.

  11. Before I start, let’s be absolutely clear here, and let this serve as a note of caution to those who are so fervently defending the publishers. Scientists did not introduce the system of suggesting reviewers. It is the publishers who implemented this system. They must take full blame for this system they implemented, even if some crooked scientists have abused it. That’s the introduction.

    PJTV, allow me to address you with my full name on this one, because I want my disdain for what is taking place to be abundantly clear among my colleagues, and my critics. Don’t get me wrong, your ideas are noble. Most certainly we want to encourage an honest and positive debate, but at the moment, science is in a veritable war of existence, and that platform for constructive debate is there, but it requires an almost aggressive push forward. On one hand, we have the publishers, particularly the for-profit ones, the vanity publishers, and/or the “predatory” publishers who most likely make up what, like 95% of the globe’s publishers? The remaining 5% of truly free, independent, academically run publishers that represent academic societies that work independently and do not fall under any commercial publisher, have no financial clout, no political clout, and no influence on the way in which the STM stream is flowing. And the only way now for those little, ethically-driven academic societies can be heard is by joining a behemoth publisher. This is the current disgraceful model in STM publishing we have enslaved ourselves to. Can scientists not aspire to more than an enslaving master and an idiotic fraction, the impact factor? Even though you or I may see the reality, the horrific situation is that these same behemoths are almost god-like in countries like India, and China, where the masses bow down to whatever is decided by the top layer. Your suggestions are only suitable for the intellectual minority, who can appreciate the mess we are in, and realize how to change it. It is, in my belief, not an effective strategy for the masses who have come to accept that the behemoths represent “quality”, as does the impact factor. Where we stand right now is tragic, truly tragic.

    If I take plant science, for example, one will notice that almost all of the main journals are published under the umbrellas of the same behemoths we are criticizing. And this is the true irony. On one hand, to command respect by peers, we need to publish in these journals, because the majority of the brain-washed community is so psychologically rigid that the only thing that they seem to understand in their daily lexicon is ISI and JCR. On the other hand, we desperately need to break the chains that bind us to this rigid structure. So, how does one achieve change and freedom simultaneously, peacefully, and positively? I think these notions are not only incompatible, they are oxymoronic. It’s like calling for a peaceful war. There’s no such thing. And that’s precisely what these behemoths would like the science community to believe: that we are at peace, seeing positive change and resolution, all under their professional guidance. Well, this is the real news: this is not going to happen, unless we allow them to steer the boat.

    There is going to be a serious phase of destructive science, of exposing the frauds, both scientists and publishers, because this is our duty, as scientists, towards science. And, from my perception, we have entered that phase and will be there for at least the next 5-10 years. And it’s going to get uglier and uglier. That is precisely why we need to keep lawyers out of this war, and why we need to keep a careful eye on these lawyer-doctored retraction notices, because there is a legal battalion sitting behind that flashy web-site facade that covers the real face of the very same behemoths that we think are bringing about “change”. It is an Obama-like change, sweet and cosmetic, but always in the interests primarily of one party, and one part alone: the publishers and their share-holders. When scientists one day wake up and understand that they have been working a life-time for the profits of a commercial publisher, or some commercial endeavor, and not really to advance any noble intellectual cause, that’s when we might actually get some resolute change.

    As I say, don’t get me wrong, your ideas are great, but they will only fit in once we have partially or fully destroyed the current structures. Allow me to elaborate in a bit more detail, using my own terms:
    1) Deconstructive science: simply destroying;
    2) Reconstructive science: destroying, then rebuilding;
    3) Plastic science: molding and evolving as we go along;
    4) Constructive science: non-existent.

    I claim that the current model in place by the STM publishers and that tranche of behemoths that we must watch very closely is employing model 3, including BMC and their master Springer Science+Business Media. In such cases, they are observing the responses of scientists very carefully, molding their business models to accommodate for some peaceful minds, all while exploiting the financial coffers of research institutes and research grants. So, typically, a company lie Elsevier (i.e., Reed-Elsevier) will negotiate to achieve a financial outcome that favors its own growth. But, Elsevier, welcome to the war! There are some that have woken up and are now resisting that repressive economic model [1]. All of these behemoths simply provide a platform where we can see a PDF file, free for a cost (how oxymoronic is that?!), or for a cost. As simple as that. This nonsense classification of the STM model as green, golden, platinum, or any other color or form, is all simply purple to me. Just cosmetic marketing maneuvers meant to create a feel-good notion about scientists, for scientists. It’s not called vanity publishing for the reason you think it is, it is to satisfy the egos of scientists who wish to see their work represented by the best. Which is why it is so shocking to see so many flocking to the absolutely worst, the predatory OA publishers. How can scientists be driven to be wanting to be represented by the worst? This is how bad science has become, and even though there are truly honest, motivated and inspired scientists who wish to serve their peers faithfully, they should be asking: for what, and for whom? Who ultimately benefits?

    So, I believe that this “recommend your own reviewers” was precisely one of the guinea-pig models put into place by these behemoths, to make us feel like we actually had some control over our own fate. And now we are starting to see the destructive results of their social experiment. We are the de facto scientific “Boys from Brazil”. And we all know what happened to that social program.

    So, yes, don’t get me wrong (I think I said that three times already), your ideas are noble, but they are so far from the reality. I am at the grass-level of the war zone, and from where I’m standing, things look really, really bad. Well, if I just look at the, SpringerLink, Wiley Online, Taylor and Francis online and other similar sites, the surface looks great, the functionality looks spot on, and, to amateurs who cannot appreciate the danger of stealth retractions (see some discussion about this in [1]), as practiced by “predatory” OA publishers like Nigeria-based Academic Journals, they will continue to simply feed into, and strengthen the actual predatory models of these behemoths.

    So, “Having a pool of ‘professional’ reviewers who are known/selected for integrity. Adding the reviewers names to the accepted papers. This all increases transparency and the sharing of experience, akin to what you want in science. That one then better suppresses fraudulent behavior is a side-effect.” Agreed, once the war is over. Even so, the idea is unrealistic, because at some point, to achieve true peer review, you would not only need the right numbers, you would need the right skills [3], and enough of it. And, once you found that suitable pool, it would most likely be all of the professionals you have ever worked with throughout your career, presenting a true conflict of interest and peer bias.

    I [4], and many others have explored this topic, and seek change. But, despite all that we say, the feeling I get is that we are gold-fish trying to jump from one fish-bowl to the next: changing the model of pseudo-freedom in science is not going to bring about real freedom. Isn’t it ironic, my intellect being sold for $52.45 plus tax [5], while I get ZEO royalties (ironic given the fact that that paper lies in the arms of the same publisher I have recently traded serious barbs with [6]. Isn’t it funny, I can get my own paper for a cheaper price at Taylor and Francis (USD 39.00) than at Informa, even though they are strictly the same company [7, 8]: “Taylor & Francis merged with Informa in 2004 to create a new company called T&F Informa, since renamed back to Informa. Taylor & Francis Group is now the academic publishing arm of Informa.” And this is the reality we live in. We donate our intellect, we even sign over our intellectual property rights. We get paid zero, no royalties, and all we get is a PDF file, even so, stamped with an irritating “Author’s copy” on it. So that the same slave-masters can charge dual pricing on our work. Science is, therefore, the most over-explored field of artistic skills on the planet. And we have only these behemoths to blame.

    [3] Teixeira da Silva, J.A. (2013) Responsibilities and rights of authors, peer reviewers, editors and publishers: a status quo inquiry and assessment. The Asian and Australasian Journal of Plant Science and Biotechnology 7(Special Issue 1): 6-15.
    [4] Teixeira da Silva JA; Dobránszki J (2015) Problems with Traditional Science Publishing and Finding a Wider Niche for Post-Publication Peer Review. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance, Volume 22, Number 1, 2 January 2015, pp. 22-40

    1. Thanks for the response – we are essentially espousing two approaches to the same problem, wanting to achieve the same ‘purity’ in science. I want to add two comments:
      1) You suggest Post-Peer Review (and unfortunately I cannot download your 2015 paper on that), which I thought of as well – any paper is open to critical review, but I could not answer the question of how to deal with harassment or some kind of some kind of witch hunting. That is why I left it out. However, in the name of good science, we should encourage critical reviews especially from the younger generation of scientists.
      2) This point of scientists signing there intellectual work away is correct. We are keeping a system in tact, where we create science, then have to often pay for its publication and then our institutions pay for the subscriptions. It is actually silly, but how to break out of that?
      Peter J.T. Verheijen

      1. I just sent you an e-mail with the file. Any RW reader who wants a free copy of the PDF, please don’t waste your precious money giving Taylor and Francis unnecessary profits from my intellect. Simply e-mail me, and I will be happy to send you the PDF copy.

    2. Scientists did not introduce the system of suggesting reviewers. It is the publishers who implemented this system.

      I would find some evidence helpful here.

    3. As a long time reader of your correspondence on this site, I welcome the turn towards more coherent viewpoints. I think you are ultimately building a theory in your admittedly original style. And by building a theory, I mean building a theory about most important thing in my life, science. What I am trying to say is that you should pursue a monograph, which might have also a much wider scope than the audience on this site. The public and public policy making needs to hear the story too.

  12. Edward Ciaccio, seeing that you are so open about your editorial responsibilities at Computers in Biology and Medicine (Elsevier), and the fact that you have come forward to present your side of the struggle, and how you deal with it, would you be willing to answer some tough questions that no other behemoth publishers’ journals’ editors are willing to respond to? One of the massive gaps that many scientists have is in their understanding of what takes place in the background surrounding the peer review of a journal, and having someone who is actively on the inside of the belly of one such behemoth publisher, maybe some public and frnak discussion about the process, provided that it does not undermine the legal terms of whatver contract you may have with Elsevier, would bring alot of clarity to the broader scientific community. This is because, quite simply, in the many requests over the years to Elsevier, they have never been forthcoming with any responses, suggesting that “something” in the background is being closely controlled. My questions are not easy, and they would not be directed personally at you, or your journal, but I sense that you could provide some insight about the belly of the beast.

  13. And, on the issue of Nature, just to grind in my point a little further made above, an article appeared today on Japanese media highlighting the financial strain that exploratory companies like Nature Publishing Group impose upon academia. It costs 2 million yen (about 17,000 US$) for a one-year subscription to open access for ONE NPG title, Nature. Now do the math and multiply this up to X titles and Y publishers. It’s a disgrace and universities are being scalped. National Japanese Universities are struggling, and are stuck between a rock and a hard place, given the fact that many researchers are complaining that they have no access to the journal. So, NPG, how much of that subscription is being used to pay editors, peer reviewers and scientists their fair slice for their professional services and intellectual contributions? Science publishing must be the only industry where professional consultants are employed for free, but whose services are then turned into profits by these behemoths. That is precisely why I have now point blank refused to review any paper for their paper mills.

    May I give three pieces of advice, Japan:

    a) Japanese scientists, stop your whining like a bunch of spoilt brats, and ask the corresponding authors for a PDF copy of the paper of interest. The age of everything for free on someone else’s bill is over. So, time to get off your high horses and moderate your requests to inflict less pain on your struggling institutes.
    b) Japanese universities: apply a one-year embrago against payment of NPG or any of these other behemoths. If you bring them to their knees, then they will understand who’s the boss of the process and that you can negotiate a good deal. Pain in the short-term, but massive economic relied in the long-term as the threat and power of an embargo remain real.
    c) Japanese Government: stop printing money [1], which is weakening the yen and making publishing costs unbearable. Secondly, stop wasting our tax-payers’ yen on weaponizing Japan [2]. Spend, instead, a fraction of these taxes replacing corrupted scientists like Kato and others with hard-working aspiring young scientists who are motivated by passion, and not by greed.

    [2] or, more recently,

    1. It costs 2 million yen (about 17,000 US$) for a one-year subscription to open access for ONE NPG title, Nature. Now do the math and multiply this up to X titles and Y publishers.

      It’s not clear to me that NPG site-license pricing scales linearly with number of titles. In any event, without a pointer to the article to which you’re referring, I’m stuck with their own pricing page.

      As it duly notes, “Pricing in yen for Japanese customers is only available by contacting your sales representative.” Whether this is a question of fluctuations in exchange rate is anyone’s guess. Using the calculator for “UK and rest of world” with “3,000–11,999” FTEs yields a 2015 price of £6026 for Nature and Scientific American, or ¥1.1 million.

      If one redoes this for all the rest of the journals with “Science/R&D FTE” of “5,001–10,000,” it does cough up a per-title list, with the following caveat:

      Please note: these are list prices. Discounts may be available in certain circumstances, including multiple title orders, pre-publication offers and consortium orders. Always contact your sales representative for confirmed pricing.

        1. Aaah, the middle man! Good insight, thanks. Cut out the middle man, and everyone can save millions. Kind of like the publishers, too actually. Nowadays, with a little know-how, anyone can become a “publisher”, as has become evident with the tsunami of predatory OA publishers. So, this brings into question: what is the function of a publisher nowadays, with so many fairly strong personal tools available, including free Google spiders, to self-publish? What is preventing the mass exodus away from the behemoths? The only logic explanation I can find is “reputation”.

  14. “….So, I believe that this “recommend your own reviewers” was precisely one of the guinea-pig models put into place by these behemoths, to make us feel like we actually had some control over our own fate…..”

    And perhaps because some editors are too lazy and they want authors to do the job of finding reviewers “experts in the field” for them. What’s more, emails of those reviewers should be submitted, maybe to facilitate computerized randomizations and forwarding of the manuscripts to nominated reviewers.
    All in all, authors are providing gratuitous services to commercial entities.
    What a model!

  15. I would like to suggest that you should also watch the paper entitled “Robust Speech Recognition by DHMM with A Codebook Trained by Genetic Algorithm.” It was written by two Taiwanese authors. You can download it from the following link.
    In this paper, the recognition rates of clean test speech set A and set B are different (page 11, tables 6 & 7, line 1 of the results ). However, they should be the same since the clean speech in test sets A and B are the same. You can compare the results with Tables 1 and 2 of the paper “THE AURORA EXPERIMENTAL FRAMEWORK FOR THE PERFORMANCE EVALUATION OF SPEECH RECOGNITION SYSTEMS UNDER NOISY
    Both authors published many papers. The second author has 179 coauthors in DBLP database.

  16. Aceil, that’s an excellent suggestion: randomization of reviewer selections from a suitably qualified pool. That would work beautifully if the following were true:

    a) the publisher actually provided such a system (hint-hint, nudge-nudge Thomson Reuters, Aries Systems, and Elsevier, etc.). The problem is they have used key-words and “specializations” of broadly registrants to the online submission systems (I bleieve) to pad the “peer” pool, so that basal data-base is corrupted. It needs to be destroyed, and resructured from scratch. What in essence the publishers are doing is trying to put a patch on a sloppy and careless initial job. And we have got to hold them accountable for providing us with this crappy system to put it bluntly.

    b) In the rank and order of responsibilities, I would say that yes, we also have to hold editors accountable. They can no longer be allowed to hide behind their e-mails, giving the authorship selective answers, ignoring the uncomfortable questions. It’s time to smoke out the decadent and lazy editors that are simply lending support to a potentially corrupted publishing system. Enough of this I’ll rub your back if you rub mine atmosphere and coziness between the current editorial structure and the publishing management. There has got to be a rigid ethical structure in place independent of publisher management. It is these behemoths that are trying to dilute this divide and muddy the waters.

    c) Just because a person has a PhD, or has published 50 papers, doesn’t make them necessarily suitable candidates. If one were to use Google, the impact factor, citations or the CV as the model criteria to select a peer, then can you see the inherent flaw in the system if we were to consider someone like Shigeaki Kato [1]? He fits the mould so perfectly, but is oh so wrong for the job a hand.

    d) Double-blnd peer review.

    e) Pre-, traditional and post-publication peer review.

    f) Less output, longer peer times and more careful screening and quality control.

    g) Financial motivation to editors and peers, and royalties, including back-payments on royalties, to authors.

    h) etc. etc.


  17. At the suggestion of JATdS, I would be glad to answer questions in this or another column on retractionwatch. I am editor of Computers in Biology and Medicine (Elsevier). I began as editor in January 2013. In the Thompson Reuters rankings that came out in July 2014 we jumped up 14 spots in rank and are now mid level. I hope to continue that climb. Elsevier does not put any restrictions on me, except that I cannot reveal anything about any honorarium that I may receive. Nothing else is restricted. A lot of what is being said here is flat out wrong. A lot of people think editors are money driven. I think that’s rarely if ever true. A good editor is driven to make his or her journal the best in its field. To do that you need the best editorial board, associate editors, referees, and of course manuscript submissions. And to do that requires a lot of work. Most of us aren’t in science for the money; I’m not making much. Having a good journal means you help shape scientific progress itself in a big way, and also helps one’s academic standing. Those are the rewards.

    1. Hi Edward,
      Given that your compensation for serving as editor is apparently not a big motivation to you and to other editors, what do you think are the chances of non-profit journals with volunteer editors succeeding?

      Or, perhaps editors could still be paid, but that money would come from the journal’s endowment rather than from sales. So could non-profit journals/publishers not relying on subscriptions ever be successful?

  18. Vladimir: “The problem is that in order to get into most PhD programs all one needs to have is the price of application and a pulse.”

    Even in my PhD program, which accepted me when I didn’t have a GPA of close to 4.0 (but still finished with more glamour magz pubs than an average top ten grad), there was an attrition rate of more than 50%, which is bad, but reflected the fact that they did have standards, and perhaps the standards for acceptance weren’t the best, but the people who finished it were generally good scientists (except for the select few who finished fourth year with a pulse only, and were pushed out, like that never happened at MIT…). Maybe they were trying to take advantage of cheap TA labor in the first two years as well. The program doesn’t lead to any more people with less enthusiasm for science than a top ranked school like Harvard, where a lot of the graduates leave science altogether to go work on Wall Street.

    Some of your ideas are good and I agree with some things, but you come across as someone who can’t formulate them properly and can’t really make a logical argument without throwing in attacks (like calling someone you don’t know Lyonia). Maybe you should work on fleshing out your thoughts a bit better before you malign most PhD programs? Considering that most of RW commenters are from ‘most PhD programs’.

    Like Leonid Schneider mentioned, it’s the winners of the academic system who are responsible for running fake peer review rings, and for creating a system where scientific fraud is more rampant than we would like. And there are plenty of MDs in there as well, if you care to check the RW archives.

  19. DOZENS of papers published in the Modern Physics Letters B with many reputable scientists on the Editorial Board were accepted within 0-3 days, right after submission. Just few examples:

    Xin Huang and Shuai Dong, Mod. Phys. Lett. B 28, 1430010 (2014) [25 pages]
    Received: 20 July 2014
    Accepted: 20 July 2014

    Ikuo Ichinose and Tetsuo Matsui, Mod. Phys. Lett. B 28, 1430012 (2014) [33 pages]
    Received: 28 July 2014
    Accepted: 29 July 2014

    Xiaoshan Xu and Wenbin Wang, Mod. Phys. Lett. B 28, 1430008 (2014) [27 pages]
    Received: 16 July 2014
    Accepted: 17 July 2014

    At the same time, according to MPLB Peer Review Policy , “Papers will be refereed by at least 2 experts as suggested by the editorial board.” Is 1 day enough to review a 33 pages paper by 2 experts? Or can a 27 pages paper be reviewed within 24 hours?

  20. Dear James A. Nice question. Time to rev up the heat. To individals like you or me, the answer is implicit in the question, but let’s see what luxurious response the marketing and legal department of the publisher will concoct to explain this one (assuming of course that you are 100% right). May I suggest that you please make a FULL listing of all of the papers that you have discovered with this almost instant acceptance date, please. In the meantime, the editor board must also be held accountable, and if there were shenanigans involved, then those editors who don’t like the publishing operation they are supporting, can simply quit.

    Since I have seen similar, if not worse, shenanigans by the “elite” of the horticultural community, who run the world’s top horticultural journal, published by Elsevier, Scientia Horticulturae, and who substituted almost a dozen editorial members without any public notice [1], I am posting the full list of the editors associated with the journal for which you are making this claim, to ensure that there is public responsibility, and accountability.


    May I also suggest you do the following:
    a) get some screen-shots of all relevant pages for archival purposes (the way-back machine is not reliable, so we have oly ourselves to act as the quality control keepers);
    b) get, download and archive all PDF files of those “published instantly” papers.
    c) Contact 100% of all editorial board meners, requesting them to respond publically here at RW.
    d) Make a collective entry, or multiple entries, at PubPeer, and try to identify scientific problems to support the fact that the lack of peer review (hypothetically) resulted in errors appearing in those papers. Here is one example:
    e) Good luck because we need a thousand such sleuths pointing out the problems with the journals, and publishers!

    Peter Fulde
    Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems
    Nöthnitzer Str. 38, 01187 Dresden, Germany

    Rongjia Tao
    Department of Physics
    Temple University
    1900 N. 13th Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19122-6013

    Yu Peng Wang
    Institute of Physics
    Chinese Academy of Sciences
    P O Box 603
    Beijing 100190
    People’s Republic of China
    Please direct all correspondence and enquiries to

    Editorial Board Members
    N N Bogolubov, Jr (Steklov Mathematical Institute, Russia)
    C W Chu (University of Houston, USA)
    M Di Ventra (University of California, San Diego, USA)
    C M Falco (University of Arizona, USA)
    A Fujimori (University of Tokyo, Japan)
    A Furusaki (RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research), Japan)
    M L Ge (Nankai Institute of Mathematics, China)
    L Glazman (University of Minnesota, USA)
    J D Guo (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)
    S-Y Han (University of Kansas, USA)
    P Ho (National University of Singapore , Singapore)
    B Hu (University of Houston, USA)
    J-P Huang (Fudan University, (China))
    G-J Jin (Nanjing University, China)
    K J Jin (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)
    G Kaniadakis (Politecnico di Torino, Italy)
    X Ke (Physics Department, Beijing Normal University, China)
    J Klafter (Tel Aviv University, Israel)
    V Korepin (State University of New York, USA)
    H C Ku (National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan)
    T-K Lee (Academia Sinica, Taiwan)
    B W Li (National University of Singapore, Singapore)
    W X Ma (University of South Florida, USA)
    D C Mattis (University of Utah, USA)
    A Mookerjee (S N Bose National Center for Basic Sciences, India)
    C-Y Mou (National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan)
    M Mueller (Georg-August Universität, Germany)
    Y Oono (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
    V Pokrovsky (Texas A & M University, USA)
    W-T Pong Philip (The University of Hong Kong, China)
    C N R Rao (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, India)
    M Rasetti (Politecnico di Torino, Italy)
    A V Razumov (Institute for High Energy Physics, Russia)
    S Sen (State University of New York at Buffalo, USA)
    A Serpenguzel (Koc University, Turkey)
    Y Shi (Fudan University, China)
    C-H Sow (National University of Singapore, Singapore)
    N Stefanou (University of Athens, Greece)
    M Stone (University of Illinois, USA)
    H B Su (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
    M Suzuki (Science University of Tokyo, Japan)
    R-B Tao (Fudan University, China)
    C S Ting (University of Houston, USA)
    Jian Wang (The University of Hong Kong, China)
    Jiao Wang (Xiamen University, China)
    X G Wen (MIT, USA)
    Z-Y Weng (Tsinghua University, China)
    T Xiang (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)
    X D Xiao (The Chinese University of Hong Kong, China)
    H X Xu (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)
    Z C Ou-Yang (Academia Sinica, China)
    Y G Yao (Beijing Institute of Technology, China)
    N-C Yeh (California Institute of Technology, USA)
    L Yu (Institute of Theoretical Physics, China)
    F-C Zhang (The University of Hong Kong, China)
    S C Zhang (Stanford University, USA)
    Z X Zhao (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)
    X J Zhou (Chinese Academy of Sciences, China)

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