Publisher issues first retractions for fake peer review, starts new checking policy

The publisher Frontiers has retracted four papers in three of its journals after discovering they had been accepted with fake peer reviews.

The problem of fake reviews has been on the research community’s radar since at least 2014, and several major publishers—including Springer, SAGE and BioMed Central—have retracted hundreds of papers accepted via fake peer reviews. But Gearóid Ó Faoleán, the ethics and integrity manager at Frontiers, told us this is the first time Frontiers had had to issue retractions for this reason.

The papers, published between 2015 and 2017, are from researchers based at the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR)–National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST) in Thiruvananthapuram, India. S. Nishanth Kumar is the only author in common to all four paper and a corresponding on two of them; Dileep Kumar, a scientist at CSIR, is a corresponding author on three of the papers.

Ó Faoleán told us:

The authors committed this fraud by suggesting reviewers using non-institutional email addresses purporting to be those of real reviewers.

Ó Faoleán explained that Frontiers discovered the faked emails during a routine check on a submitted manuscript. When the publisher contacted an invited reviewer in September 2017 to confirm an email address, Ó Faoleán told us:

the contact revealed that the (real) reviewers were unaware of the manuscript review, and that their names had been suggested by the authors with false e-mail addresses.

The manuscript in question was rejected, Ó Faoleán said, and the publisher investigated all other submissions by the research group.

According to Ó Faoleán, the group of CSIR researchers submitted 11 papers to Frontiers journals, seven of which were rejected and four published:

Based on our investigation, we are confident that the use of these false reviewers is limited to this one research group. These four papers are now being retracted and the authors’ institutions will be alerted.

Ó Faoleán said the publisher introduced a policy this summer to ensure that “the means by which the reviewers committed peer-review fraud is no longer possible at Frontiers.” Ó Faoleán told us:

Author-suggested reviewers are now blinded to the handling editors and only provided upon verification by the editorial office of the reviewer’s identity via their institutional email address….We introduced this policy during the summer and so the means by which the reviewers committed peer-review fraud is no longer possible at Frontiers. All these published articles predate the introduction of that policy.

In a follow up, we asked Ó Faoleán if the journal had been checking for faked reviews before the summer, given that it’s been a problem plaguing other publishers for years; he told us:

…as well as cross-checking confirmed false profiles from other publishers with our database, we were checking author-suggested reviewers during peer-review. Prior to this summer, we did not do institutional verification systematically if the author-suggested reviewers were previously registered with us as EB members (many of our appointed EB members use personal email accounts). The fraudulent accounts purported to be such people.

Dileep Kumar told us that S. Nishanth Kumar joined his division at CSIR from ICAR-Central Tuber Research Institute (CTCRI) as a young scientist in late 2011:

…He was a temporary employee but in the status of a scientist. As he was a Microbiologist, he was associated in many assigned work with me…I was periodically monitoring the work till it [reached] in the shape of a publication.

Dileep Kumar added:

Last September (08-11-2017), Dr. Nishanth Kumar approached me (as Head) and told that he got a permanent job in an Industry as Microbiologist and [wanted] to resign from the current job from 06-09-2017…After few days only I got a mail from Frontier group about some clarification about the referees of our published paper. I gave all the possible information collected by me to them and asked Dr. Nishanth to clarify the remaining.

Dileep Kumar said:

In my 32 years research career, this is a shock to me and I have only few years to me. Many of the other authors are students or young scientist. This is a [irreparable] damage to their career and to my retirement also…I am not justifying the great mistake/crime happened in this but accepting it with a great pain in the far end of my career. I also remain guilty in [not] selecting the referee and uploading the manuscript by myself (which could have not brought this incident).

We contacted S. Nishanth Kumar, who now lists his affiliation at the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute in Sreekariyam, India, but have not heard back.

The four retraction noticestwo published in Frontiers in Microbiology (1, 2) and one each in Frontiers in Pharmacology and Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology—all state:

The publisher has discovered that the author(s) created and provided false information for the peer-review process. As the scientific integrity of the article cannot be guaranteed, and adhering to the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the publisher therefore retracts the article.

Here are the four papers:

Although fake peer review has become a problem in publishing worldwide, according to our analysis, China has retracted more scientific papers because of faked peer reviews than all other countries and territories combined.

Editor’s note 11/22/2017 14:18 UTC: The story has been updated to include Ó Faoleán’s description of Frontiers’s checking policy for fake reviews prior to this summer.

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3 thoughts on “Publisher issues first retractions for fake peer review, starts new checking policy”

  1. “Author-suggested reviewers are now blinded to the handling editors and only provided upon verification by the editorial office of the reviewer’s identity via their institutional email address”

    This strikes me as a bad fix because it excludes researchers who have no affiliation or who prefer to use their personal (stable) email accounts. I do have affiliations and institutional email addresses but I prefer my gmail account which has followed me when I’ve moved between institutions. This gmail address is listed as my email for all papers that have me as corresponding author and journals have correctly used it to contact me as a peer reviewer.

    I expect that the number of fake peer review incidents which this policy intends to prevent is much smaller than the number of unaffiliated researchers or researchers who use non-institutional email addresses…

  2. I completely agree with Peter Phalen who effectively concludes that reviewers (and authors) without institutional e-mail addresses should be included. An e-mail address is not a selection criterion. It is no more than an indicator of a possible fake reviewer.

    An alternative is to use something like the ORCID identifier. Publishers can then verify whether somebody has a publication record, and if a fake reviewer has been identified (s)he can be flagged for all publishers (who care).

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