Want to be a first author on a scholarly paper? A Russian company has you covered — starting at about $500. The company claims to have added the names of more than 10,000 researchers to more than 2,000 published articles in scholarly journals over the past three years. Think eBay — or perhaps StubHub — for unscrupulous scientists.
Although we can’t verify the numbers, at least one major journal indexer, from whom we recently learned of the scheme, is concerned enough about the site that it has demanded that it stop doing business.
According to the Russian outfit’s site (through Google Translate):
We sell publications of finished articles in Scopus and Web of Science magazines (articles written and accepted in journals; sold in parts or in whole).
In other words, says Clarivate, the company perhaps best known for journal impact factors, the Russian brokerage — 123mi.ru — auctions authorship slots to researchers willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the service. Clarivate’s Web of Science Group began investigating after staff at its Moscow office received a tip about the outfit, and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the operators of the service earlier this week.
According to a July 17, 2019, letter from the Web of Science Group to the Committee on Publication Ethics, the company found 344 articles for sale on the Russian website. Of those, 32, or 9%, are allegedly indexed on Web of Science and 303 (88%) appear in the Scopus database.
Evidently, the Russian fraudsters are neither ceasing nor desisting. In response to our request for comment on the legal action, we received the following reply from a “Ksenia Badziun:”
Regarding the quantity of the manuscripts we have published, I want to confirm that it grows every time. It could be a pleasure for me to show all the list of the manuscripts we published, but due to the policy of our company and contracts between the authors/publishers and our company, I simply cannot do it. On the other hand, I want to inform that we have our own system and program with all the records and story on each particular manuscript sent to us from the authors. The access to our program is provided to some of the editors-in-chief, publishers and other our Partners.
A publishing vulnerability
Here’s how the scheme likely works, according to Nandita Quaderi, editor in chief of Web of Science: An author, or group of authors, submits a paper and has it accepted. At that point, they submit a listing to the Russian site, offering additional authorships on the paper for a fee. The tactic exploits a vulnerability in the publishing process that allows authors to add names to manuscripts after acceptance. Such moves should raise a red flag, and have in at least a few cases.
However, at many journals, after acceptance the paper leaves the editorial department for the production offices, where workers — frequently with less experience — are unaware that it’s bad practice to allow authors to add names.
“Someone working in production, right out of college, is being told by a senior professor that ‘I forgot to include my co-authors,’” Quaderi told Retraction Watch.
Although most of the journals involved are based in “developing economies,” according to Quaderi’s letter to COPE, some are in the United States, the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. The company declined to name the specific journals, saying that they are still investigating whether the editors and publishers are aware of the scam.
Data from the Web of Science Group show that India leads the current list of “seller” nations, with 73 papers from that country up for auction. That’s followed by Venezuela, at 54, the United States, at 38, Russia, with 33, and Pakistan, at 28.
The Russian company’s methods are sophisticated enough to charge more for first authorships — starting at 32,200 rubles, or about $500 — than for second or third authorships. Fourth authorships, where available, run closer to 24,000 rubles, or $380.
Why would scientists pay to get their names onto papers they didn’t write? The pressures to publish — frequently and in reputable journals — are so strong that some researchers feel the need to cut corners, cook results and take other shortcuts to get their names into the literature. In some cases, paying for the unearned privilege is simply a down payment with a potentially lucrative payoff. Institutions, and even countries, are known to offer researchers cash awards for each publication. As we reported in Science in 2017:
Chinese universities offer first authors more than $43,000 for publishing a paper in Science or Nature, with the top reward for such a paper reaching a knee-wobbling $165,000.
‘WE GUARANTEE publication by 100%’
The website for the scheme offers would-be authors the following instructions:
On this page you can choose an article in your own direction and become one of the co-authors. Below is information about each publication. Right information about the cost, the magazine, the timing of submission and timing of publication. Left a brief description of the article and keywords. If in the list, on this page, you have found a suitable article, indicate its number # (Order number) and indicate what number in order in the list of authors you want to be.
In one example, an article on “Development of bio-compatible coatings for dental implants based on transition metal nitrides,” the site states that three of the four author slots have already been sold; one — third author — remains up for grabs. Want to know the journal being targeted? That information will cost you.
Elsewhere on the site is the boast that:
We have more than 50 completed contracts with universities and research institutes, you can look at the office.
We are the ONLY on the market who can handle large volumes – up to 400 articles per month.
We are NOT CHEAP, because WE GUARANTEE publication by 100%.
Worried about fraudsters in the field? Rest easy, the Russian company has a long list of tips for how to identify um, how do we say this, real crooks:
Others promise, take money and disappear. We make quality articles and publish them 100% of the time.
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