Pay to play? Three new ways companies are subverting academic publishing

Some recent communications from companies involved in academic publishing have some journal representatives worried. In one instance, a manuscript editing company offered to pay an editor to help its papers get published in his journal; in another, a research ethics company threatened to investigate all of an author’s papers if he or she didn’t donate thousands to support the company’s efforts. Bottom line: Research authors (and editors) should beware companies offering unethical manuscript editing and other publishing services. Below are examples (which we’ve verified) compiled by Chris Graf, Co-Vice Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and Society Partnership Director at Wiley; Richard Holt, editor-in-chief of Diabetic Medicine and researcher at the University of Southampton; Tamara Welschot, the Director of Research Integrity and Publishing Services at Springer Nature; and Matt Hodgkinson, Head of Research Integrity, Hindawi Limited.

We share for the benefit of researchers (and journal editors and publishers) three new warnings cut from the same cloth as other recent peer review “scams.” These warnings appear to indicate that third parties continue to attempt to inappropriately influence peer review and journal publishing.

Here are the details.

Richard Holt, editor-in-chief of the journal Diabetic Medicine, received an email purportedly sent in the name of a Chinese commercial manuscript editing company. The email described how due to language problems it is not easy for doctors to publish medical research. The email explained that the company was seeking a partner who should be an editor or chief editor of a journal for “collaborative business” to help doctors achieve this goal. The authors of the email expressed their hope that the editor “can utilize his/her position to help us publish our manuscripts quickly and successfully.” An attachment described how they hope (we quote):

1-The review process of our submissions are supposed to be within one months;

2-Use your position to lead our manuscripts to final acceptance for publication in your journal. For example, if our manuscripts are not well prepared, and are rejected by one or even all reviewers, please invite more peers to review them, or judge a major revision to resubmission. Our authors will do their best to improve the manuscripts;

3-We pay $1000 for each manuscript on the condition it is accepted for publication thanks to your help.

Holt wrote back, advising that he believed this to be unethical. He added he would report this to COPE.

Tamara Welschot, Director Research Integrity and Publishing Services, Springer Nature, and colleagues were notified of another incident by an author who received an email from an organization described as “a not for profit movement working in the field of promoting ethics in scientific research”. The email explains how the organization “provides training and professional services to individuals and organizations on fighting fraud in research and publication” and how they identified “significant instance of research misconduct” in figures published in a particular paper. The email’s authors indicate that they will report this to the research authors’ institution and suggest “The Ministry of Education China, Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and Chinese Academy of Science” may be “particularly interested.”

No particular surprises so far. This is quite common to the language and approach used by anonymous whistleblowers. However, the email then becomes more sinister. The email’s authors state “You decided to ignore our earlier email, before we investigate all of your publications we would like to give you a chance.” And they go on to say:

You can avoid all of these proceedings if you support our project with a donation of 2000 USD through the donation link mentioned on our website… If we do not receive the requested amount within two days (from the date of this email) then we will automatically initiate the proceedings.

On investigation the names and images of the people named online as running the organization appeared to be fake and the website appeared to plagiarize from an article on ethical publishing. Welschot and colleagues reported the case to COPE.

Matt Hodgkinson, Head of Research Integrity, Hindawi Limited, and colleagues received an email from what appeared to be an “article broker” in Russia. The email states that the broker needs to publish 500 to 1500 research articles during 2017 “to fulfill the task of our Ministry of Education”. They offer to “pre-select good quality articles and send them to your journals”, which would be “written by the leading scientists from Russia.” They ask:

What are the conditions and timing? … Do you accept payments via PayPal?

While less egregious than the examples above, the contents of this email appear to suggest that the broker may lack understanding of how peer review works and would place themselves between the research authors and the journal, whereas the publisher expects that “Manuscripts should be submitted by one of the authors of the manuscript.” Hodgkinson and colleagues decided not to respond, and shared the case with COPE.

Our message to research authors is to be wary of companies that offer you manuscript editing and publication services. Be sure, before you agree to work with them, that they act ethically and to the standards you expect. If they appear to promise they will “get your research published,” then stop and think twice. Ask how they engage with journals. Ask what they think about recent peer review scams. Only work with companies where you are satisfied with their ethics.

Our message to editors when they receive emails like this is to check with your publisher for advice and consider reporting your experience to COPE. And then consider “going public,” as we have done here, to warn research authors, other journal editors, and all of us who share an interest in trustworthy research and evidence “as the bedrock of public policy and the solutions to our most urgent problems, from protecting public health to mitigating climate change.”

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15 thoughts on “Pay to play? Three new ways companies are subverting academic publishing”

  1. Why are scientists pressured to put themselves in very vulnerable positions? Aren’t universities and ministries of higher education watching? They are to blame. IMO.

  2. Two thoughts…

    Firstly, these folks are paddling against the stream by inserting additional layers of bureaucracy into the publication process. Much of the past decade has been spent taking down barriers and making publication more open. This just seems to work in the opposite direction.

    Secondly however, the moment any process becomes so complicated that a whole business has to emerge to “shepherd” the user through it, that business is in trouble.

    So, while it’s hard to agree there’s anything good about these occurences, the fact they happened at all is directly attributable to the complicated, financially overburdened nature of academic publishing industry. When something like this happens, the response of the industry should not be “how can we stop this?”, but rather “how can we as a business change to disincentivize this from happening?”

    1. well said Paul! Publishers should think about this! As editors and reviewers, our suggestions should be considered as well!

  3. World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) member editors report similar instances of receiving such pay to play emails, but it’s unclear how to report these to COPE if the journal is not a COPE member. Do you have additional information as to whom to send the information?

    1. We suggest editors use the “Contact us” tab on our website ( and label their email as a “general enquiry”. We are most interested in emails that are threatening or making some novel demand for types of participation. COPE will attempt to keep a list of these contacts for future reference, but we are not in any position to investigate these emails.

  4. Can any one please explain what role can COPE play against such bodies? Is COPE an authority? It seems that illegal activities should be reported to law enforcement agencies not to COPE.

    1. Is it illegal for a journal editor to accept a bribe to publish an article? What laws is she or he breaking, especially if she or he acts as a “consultant” to these “scientists” ? (Maybe tax evasion, if the payment is not declared?)

      I’m not remotely surprised to hear these stories. If Chinese scientists who get a paper into Nature receive a payoff of around $30,000 ( it would seem to make good business sense for everyone to be able to partake of some of this largesse.

      1. Some countries really need to look at the incentive structures put in place for their researchers. Giving money and promotions out as direct consequence of publishing papers is just an invitation to committing fraud and enables predatory publishers and other dubious middlemen.

    2. We agree that if there is any possibility of law enforcement agencies taking action against these emails, that would be preferable. It does not seem this has happened in the past, so COPE’s only role here would be to maintain a list of threats and bribes as a reference.

  5. Let’s compare two situations:

    (a) A manuscript editing company contacts a journal and proposes to pay $1,000 per paper published in this journal.

    (b) A funding agency contacts a group of 6 journals and proposes to pay $100,000 so that all their papers are published in open access mode.

    I still don’t get how (b) is not considered unethical as well. In both cases, I believe the editorial process is influenced.

    1. The difference with the approach described in our post is that the company was proposing direct payments to the handling editor in return for accepting articles, outside the usual payment structure. This would heavily bias their decisions and is quite different from funder arrangements or institutional memberships. Editors should not have such direct incentives to accept articles and there should be a separation between editorial decisions and payment decisions, e.g. waivers.

      1. I am well aware of the differences between the two situations. My point is not to say that they are equivalent, but only that they are both unethical.

        I think that an editor from an AAAS journal will be slightly biased when deciding whether to accept or not a Gate’s foundation manuscript since the foundation has given the AAAS $100,000.

          1. Ok, I used a shortcut. Fair enough.

            The Gates foundation funds research projects and at the same time signs an agreement with a publishing company so that the manuscripts issued from these research projects are made fully open.

  6. We have twice had authors contact us about when their accepted papers would be published. We had no record of the papers and the acceptance letters were fake. Obviously the authors paid for a service promising them publication in our journals. One of these letters forged the editor’s name (though with a misspelling).

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