After Elsevier knew an author faked reviews, it kept accepting his papers for more than a year

In March 2017, Christopher Blanford received an email from an editor at the Journal of Crystal Growth. Blanford had been named as a suggested reviewer for a manuscript, and the editor, Arnab Bhattacharya, wanted to verify that the Gmail account the authors provided was legitimate.

It was not.

Blanford—a senior lecturer in biomaterials at the University of Manchester, UK—thought it was an “amusing coincidence” that he was chosen as a fake reviewer, given that he has written about malpractice in academic publishing. He confirmed the Gmail account was not his, and the other two suggested reviewers told Bhattacharya, a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, the same thing.

It turns out the author, Ahmad Salar Elahi, based at Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Iran, had already been under scrutiny by the publisher, Elsevier. (And months before after Blanford was queried about the email, one of Elahi’s papers had been was retracted by another Elsevier journal. The reason? The editors of International Journal of Hydrogen Energy had found the article was accepted “based upon the positive advice of three illegitimate reviewer reports.”)*

In fact, the publisher had been warned about Elahi’s alleged use of fake reviewers as early as 2015. Still, in 2016 and 2017, 21 papers from this group were submitted and published in Elsevier journals. Last month, we reported that Elsevier is retracting 26 papers affected by fake reviews; Elahi is corresponding author on 24 of them. Islamic Azad University also informed us Elahi has been suspended from all his duties, including teaching.  

Blanford described part of the situation from his point of view in a recent editorial in the Journal of Materials Science (a Springer publication, where he is deputy editor-in-chief); he also tweeted about it. Blanford told us the publisher discovered the authors had used him as a suggested reviewer in a dozen other papers submitted to Elsevier journals. According to Blanford, only four were published, two of which have been retracted.

Uncovering a “referee racket”

In March 2015, Bhattacharya received a manuscript submission from Elahi, in which Elahi only provided Gmail and Yahoo email accounts for the suggested reviewers. Concerned about a possible “referee racket,” Bhattacharya decided to investigate.

That month, Bhattacharya sent the journal’s chief editor, Thomas Kuech, what he had found, explaining:

I have good reason to believe that most of these reviewers do not exist!

Bhattacharya had discovered that Elahi had suggested the same group of reviewers for the new submission and two papers published in the journal. When he Googled the suggested reviewers, he found that in some cases the authors had altered their real emails and affiliations, and none were experts on the manuscript topic. When examining the reviews submitted for the two published papers, Bhattacharya also found extensive duplication.

Bhattacharya said Kuech told him in mid-2015 he had been discussing the issue with Elsevier. Yet, in 2016 and 2017, the publisher accepted and published 21 papers from Elahi’s group.

We asked Elsevier why papers from this group were still being accepted after the publisher had been warned about Elahi; a spokesperson told us:

We were initially made aware of a potential problem with these authors back in 2015, but short of Elsevier structurally blacklisting authors across all journals in our editorials systems and thereby risking undermining editorial independence, subsequent articles were hard to flag for further review. Most of these submissions the final authors were not actually named on the original submission (where the most intensive checking takes place) but only added at revision. The corresponding author used several different email addresses as well. So the main author identifiers (name and email) were very hard to track in this case.

The peer review manipulation may affect other publishers as well. Blanford explained that he also found multiple papers by Elahi published in Springer journals, and contacted the editors on December 10 to investigate. He told us:

I thought that the author had some real cheek to do this. I was pleased that Dr Bhattacharya caught this. When I saw how widespread the fraud was… I was disappointed by my fellow editors at other journals. A quick search on my name and publication record would show that none of the articles were remotely close to my field.

We emailed Elahi for comment, but he has not replied.

Suspended “from all duties”

After we reported Elsevier’s plans to retract 26 papers, Mahmood Ghoranneviss, dean and director of the Plasma Physics Research Center at Islamic Azad University (where Elahi works), sent us a statement regarding Elahi’s “unlawful activities,” and told us:

As soon as we learned what Ahmad Salar Elahi has been doing we introduced him to the disciplinary committee of the university.

Ghoranneviss was a co-author on several of Elahi’s papers:

As far as we learned from “Retraction Watch” report, the authorship lists were changed and my name was added later. … He, as the corresponding author of the articles, should have had our approval beforehand.

Although the university has not made a final decision, Ghoranneviss said he believes that Elahi will likely “be sacked from the university with an immediate effect:”

Meanwhile, I personally suspended him from all his duties and removed him from all his teaching classes and from the supervision of post-grad students. His illegal action has caused an angry backlash and very strong negative reaction not only in our university but also in many academic institutes and research centers in Iran.

*Update, 2200 UTC, 1/5/17: We have edited a sentence in the fourth paragraph based on a comment from Elsevier’s Catriona Fennell, who noted that, despite the “Available online 31 December 2016” date on the retracted article, it was retracted in November, 2017. She writes:

we appreciate this could cause confusion and are working to add first online retraction dates.

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11 thoughts on “After Elsevier knew an author faked reviews, it kept accepting his papers for more than a year”

  1. If a publisher accepts a paper, and the associated fees, and then retracts the paper, they do not refund the fees. So what incentive is there for a publisher to avoid collecting these fees by blacklisting authors? Retractions are painfully slow in too many circumstances, and the revenues flow.

    COPE seems to have very little influence, or desire, to come down hard on such practices. There are too few consequences to journals and publishers that behave in this manner.

    1. If a publisher accepts a paper, and the associated fees….

      I’m not going through the whole list, but the Journal of Crystal Growth appears to only have a fee for OA papers. Without checking these, you’re begging the question.

  2. I appreciate Steven’s point about the financial incentives for publishers. For some ‘legitimate’ journals, another variable that may go hand-in-hand with the revenue incentive seems to be a dire need for submissions. Given these pressures, some of these journals may be willing to accept papers from potentially problematic entities as long as, on the surface at least, the work has some merit. On the other hand, a question that often arises in these situations is whether the individuals or groups that have been flagged as having engaged in some form of misconduct should be banned for a limited period of time or for an entire lifetime. I suppose that it depends, in part, on the nature of the transgression. Be that as it may, these types of issues can benefit from thoughtful public discussion.

  3. I would like to react to Prof. Ghoranneviss’s response and justification. He claims that he has been added as a co-author without his notice. Some of these papers have been published several years ago and it is difficult to believe that he has not been aware of them all these years. The papers are even listed on his Google Scholar page: https://scholar.google.co.jp/citations?hl=en&user=Ah0w41EAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate

    I think Prof. Ghoranneviss should also be blamed for this issue. Is it fair to enjoy the benefits of the publications and list them on your profile, but claim that it is not your fault when issues arise?

  4. Just to correct a factual point in the above:
    It is not the case that any Elsevier journal retracted a paper by Dr Elahi for peer-review manipulation before Dr Blanford was contacted in March 2017 as part of an extensive investigation. The cited retraction http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360319916333079 took place in November 2017. (The ‘”available online” date refers to the original article, not to the retraction: we appreciate this could cause confusion and are working to add first online retraction dates.)

  5. I am surprised at peoples comments and this articles author. I keep on seeing this phrase: his group! there is no group! students wrote articles and gave them to Dr elahi to publish them because we all thought he know where to publish what work. my name is on one of those articles. I have email the editor of the journals and told them that non of the other authors new anything about this. unfortunately, his actions has cost us our research time and brought us grate shame. I am surprised at the people for judging all of us. let me tell everyone that any man can submit any article with your name and your affiliation. this means publication policies need proper reviewing. my name, my work, my articles have been harmed due to first this mans actions and these not so well submitting policies. policies have to be changed for the better because other wise peoples academic statues will get harmed due to the wrong doing of people like him.

    my research and hard work will always be questioned due to these policies from now on cause i have an retracted article to my name without even knowing the corresponding author did such a thing.

    policies, policies, policies… .

    S. Sharifi

  6. As an Iranian author I want to declare that it is condemned by all Iranian academicians and scientists that most of them are very righteous and honest people.

  7. Replying to “Aria’s comment”, I don’t consider myself in a position to pass judgement, but I know Prof. Ghoranneviss. He has many good papers. He is very busy, but I accept that he should have been more watchful.

  8. In a well established scientific group, all authors have to be aware of the content of paper before submission. It might be negligible for once, but do repeating submission without approving by all co-authors cannot be justified. If the co-authors were not happy with the submission (since they were not aware of it), they would stop it after publishing.

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