“We don’t want to be caught napping:” Meet Hindawi’s new head of research integrity

Matt Hodgkinson
Matt Hodgkinson

We spoke with Matt Hodgkinson about how he turned his “spidey sense” for what’s wrong with papers into a new position at Hindawi, one of the largest publishers of open-access journals.

 Retraction Watch: As the new Head of Research Integrity at Hindawi, what does your position entail? What does your typical day look like?

Matt Hodgkinson: I oversee research integrity at Hindawi, which mainly means publication ethics. This involves day-to-day handling of errors and allegations of misconduct and also reviewing our practices, before and after publication. I assess new claims, manage the progress of cases, approve corrections and retractions, look into how our processes and policies can be improved, and interact with other publishers and organizations like the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). I usually deal with new claims and updates to cases and then work on longer term projects, such as how we detect and handle plagiarism, though a single case might take all day – I have a poster on my wall for the Wiley-Hindawi journal Complexity as a metaphor for ethics cases.

RW: Are you the first person to hold this position? If so, why was it created?

MH: This is a new role, though our Head of Strategic Projects, Andrew Smeall, was holding the fort until I joined. There is an increasing perception among science journals that ethics and integrity issues have become more common and more complex in the last five years or so, something I heard said at both the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) conference earlier this year and the most recent COPE forum. I’ve been in publishing since 2003 and although we have always seen some individual authors, reviewers and editors behaving badly, the scale and nature of the problem has changed. Some of this is down to technology and openness enabling detection of poor practices – such as better plagiarism detection and more content being online and thus easily searchable, particularly when it is not hiding behind a paywall – but we’re also seeing an industrialization of misconduct. Hindawi built a system to track corrections, retractions, and claims of misconduct earlier this year and along with this formed a dedicated research integrity team, which I’m heading.

RW: What is your background, that led you to take on this role?

MH: I went into publishing after studying biology as an undergraduate at Oxford and then an MSc in Cambridge on a fruit fly disease model. Michael Ashburner in the Genetics department was an advocate of open access and this rubbed off on me; I was lucky to join the OA journal publisher BioMed Central as an editor in the early days. I quickly became interested in peer review, publication ethics and journalology and I had an eye for problems – we’d call it my “spidey sense”. After I joined PLOS in 2010 I continued to dig up cases of misconduct. We had weekly meetings about tricky cases at PLOS ONE and we formed an ethics team to improve cross-publisher processes. I’m also interested in reporting – I drafted guidelines for Western Blots and genetic association meta-analyses. My current role was attractive because it allows me to focus on a part of publishing I’ve long been interested in, but has previously been a sideline.

RW: In reviewing user stats from our site, we noticed a lot of traffic to Retraction Watch from Hindawi. When we inquired, you told us that you screen new manuscripts by running a search on our site. When did you start doing that, and why? What are you looking for?

MH: This is part of our submission screening – we don’t want to be caught napping. We may apply sanctions to authors who breach publication ethics (https://www.hindawi.com/ethics/) and evidence from outside Hindawi is taken into account. If an author has been involved in cases of misconduct we want to know and searching Retraction Watch is part of this, though we don’t automatically bar submissions from anyone mentioned on the site. We previously searched by hand and this year we built a new screening platform that auto-generates links to search RW, which is what you saw in your referrals.

RW: We’ve seen many publishers struggle with false identities – either of reviewers, or in the case of one Hindawi journal, an imposter posing as a real researcher who edited three articles before people realized what had happened. Hindawi has also had to pull multiple papers after realizing some of the reviews had been faked. What is the publisher doing to try to verify researchers’ and reviewers’ identities, to prevent additional cases?

MH: This is an area where misconduct has been industrialized. Much of publishing has operated on a system of trust and that trust is breaking down: The first reviewer faking case I heard of was from 2011, which is relatively recent. Hindawi does not use author-suggested reviewers, which offers us some protection, but as you note we were still vulnerable. From 2014 onwards we’ve put in place stricter checks to verify author, reviewer and editor identities and emails and we compare data about the different people associated with submissions. As we’re in an arms race of scammers finding holes and publishers plugging them, we need to keep details of the checks private.

RW: Recently, we reported that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued an open access publisher, OMICS Group, charging it has deceived readers about its reviewing practices, publication fees, and other issues. Did this surprise you?

MH: I wasn’t surprised: I blogged about suspect publishers as long ago as 2008, when they were dubbed “black sheep” by Gunther Eysenbach of the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Ignoring them or educating authors hasn’t worked, and action against the worst of these publishers has been a long time coming.

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10 thoughts on ““We don’t want to be caught napping:” Meet Hindawi’s new head of research integrity”

  1. There’s no doubt Dr. Hodgkinson has the “chops” for a job in enforcing research ethics. However, the question is whether this is enough? We’re talking about a publisher with a stable of over 400 journals across numerous scientific disciplines. According to Wikipedia they published 22,000 papers in 2012 (a number that has no doubt increased since). A single person overseeing ethics in such a large volume of material is frankly laughable. So, how big exactly is the ethics “team” at Hindawi. I would expect at least 40 persons (say 10 journals each to oversee), with discipline-specific expertise.

    Also, while Hindawi does use plagiarism software for text, do they routinely subject all images (blots etc) and data to secondary scrutiny? Do they demand that original unedited images and data behind graphs be included in supplemental information? If not, why not? I understand that with such a large volume of material it might take a lot of people to do this, but Hindawi isn’t exactly starved for cash… https://scholarlyoa.com/2013/04/04/hindawis-profits-are-larger-than-elseviers/

      1. Well therein lies the problem – if we held everyone to the same standard, we wouldn’t need sites like this. However, in this case Hindawi is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease – they bask in the glory of a “puff piece” about their ethics efforts, and as a result can expect questions about how far those efforts really go.

        1. That is why, Paul, post-pub peer review has to prove if their ethical trumpeting is simply superficial, or genuine. It will be a monumental task to sift through tens of thousands of papers. Without diminishing the effort by Matt, or the desire by Hindawi to be as transparent and accountable as possible, the issue of “trumpeting” their ethical policies will be something that any publisher will naturally do (as opposed to recognizing their errors, and advertising their weaknesses). I have yet to see a publisher or journal that says, ok, let’s stop publishing for a couple of weeks, and let’s sift through every single paper in our journal(s), and check for issues related to plagiarism, figures, duplication, etc. Publishers – including Hindawi – will never cease or pause their business model to take a pro-active approach to self-scrutinize their literature. Rather, they will rely exclusively on a scandal (e.g., fake peer reviews), or whistle-blowers, to do this task for them. However, the fact that when presented with evidence, they are now doing something – under the guidance of Matt – already sets Hindawi aside from some other COPE member publishers whose editors, in several cases, are dawdling and avoiding dealing with the issues.

    1. I oversee the strategy and the process of dealing with errors and misconduct – we have a team of over 50 people who screen submissions for plagiarism, author issues, etc., some at submission and some at acceptance. I’m discussing what additional checks we can make, including of images.

      1. Matt, this is a good progress, and many publishers, faced with increasing scandals, are stepping up their verification steps during submission and peer review (e.g., plagiarism checks). However, what is Hindawi doing about checking the already published literature, especially the first few years of published papers that were published when the journals launched and when the publisher was still getting established? It is the earlier papers that tend to be problematic because checks were possibly not as rigorous as they are now. Surely, it is not fair to rely exclusively on whistle-blowers and attentive readers to identify problems? Editors tend to have the attitude (sadly) of “that was published before my time” or “that was not overseen by me”, and use these principles to scape-goat correcting the literature, so what is the policy at Hindawi regarding the past literature?

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