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before after Blanford was queried about the email, one of Elahi’s papers had been was retracted by another Elsevier journal.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 According to Blanford, only four were published, two of which have been retracted.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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