A tale of (3)2 retraction notices: On publishers, paper mill products, and the sleuths that find them

Should publishers acknowledge the work of sleuths when their work has led to retractions?

We were prompted to pose the question by a recent retraction from International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics of a 2021 paper. The notice reads:

The Editor-in-Chief has retracted this article because it shows evidence of peer review manipulation. In addition, the article shows evidence of authorship manipulation: it appears authorship for this article was offered for sale before the article was submitted to the journal.

The Authors have not responded to any correspondence from the editor about this retraction.

We have no reason to doubt that any of that is true. But the paper was one of several hundred likely paper mill products identified by Brian Perron and colleagues in work published on Retraction Watch last December, using language similar to that in the retraction notice. And the paper was the subject of paper mill contract 721 on a list that Perron et. al. made available soon after that publication.

And yet the Springer Nature retraction notice makes no mention of the work by Perron and colleagues.

Contrast that with a retraction notice about 30 papers published last month by the International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, or iJET. The editors cited Perron et. al.’s work, and wrote that “we are very thankful for the information provided by Dr. Perron and his team.”

Or with multiple cases over the past several years of retraction notices citing the work of well-known sleuth Elisabeth Bik. Bik pointed out that some of the work she received credit for, in this case from Elsevier journals, was a group effort, including by David Bimler, aka “Smut Clyde.” Bimler is credited in a recent set of nearly 1,000 expressions of concern for crystallography structures used in likely paper mill articles.

So why no mention of Perron and colleagues in the recent retraction notice? The omission means that the journal ignores the fact that Springer Nature’s peer review process missed yet another paper mill paper. And the fact that there were volunteers doing at least some of the work that profitable multibillion-dollar corporations like readers and others to think they’re doing when they charge subscriptions or article processing charges. We asked Chris Graf, head of research integrity at Springer Nature for comment. A spokesperson sent this response on his behalf:

We are dedicated to investigating all concerns around our published content and there is no doubt that sleuths play a huge role in supporting us in doing that.  The complexity and scale of the work that mills are doing to undermine our processes makes it particularly challenging for publishers to identify all cases and specialist academics around the world do a fantastic and important job of supporting the efforts to clean up the literature.

In general we do not put thanks into retraction notes as the specific role of these notes is to update the publication record. However, we are extremely appreciative of all those that give their time and expertise to helping uncover problematic content.  This is particularly the case when individuals contact and work directly with our Research Integrity team, whose focus is addressing these concerns and who can personally thank the sleuths for their contributions.  In this instance I would like to emphasise how grateful we are to Professor Perron for his work. 

We also pointed out that in recent testimony before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee, Graf had responded to a question about how much time and effort investigating fraud can take by referring only to the work of his Springer Nature colleagues – and not mentioning the work of sleuths who often bring that fraud to their attention. He responded:

The response that you refer to from the Congressional hearing was an ad hoc comment (as you may have been able to tell) to provide some context, based on my experience of managing the recent investigations. I would not be able to provide information about how many sleuths there are out there and how much time they spend, as I’m not privy to that information. Had the response been something that was not off the cuff, however, I would of course have wished to reflect on how important these researchers are as a part of the ecosystem that works to preserve the publication record.

Springer Nature, we should note, was not alone in failing to mention the work by Perron and colleagues in a retraction notice about a paper on the team’s list. In a recent notice, Thinking Skills and Creativity, an Elsevier title, retracted the paper that was the subject of contract 1160 on the group’s list:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editors-in-Chief.

After a thorough investigation, the Editors have concluded that the acceptance of this article was partly based upon the positive advice of one illegitimate reviewer report. The report was submitted from an email account which was provided to the journal as a suggested reviewer during the submission of the article. Although purportedly a real reviewer account, the Editors have concluded that this was not of an appropriate, independent reviewer.

This manipulation of the peer-review process represents a clear violation of the fundamentals of peer review, our publishing policies, and publishing ethics standards. Apologies are offered to the reviewer whose identity was assumed and to the readers of the journal that this deception was not detected during the submission process.

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6 thoughts on “A tale of (3)2 retraction notices: On publishers, paper mill products, and the sleuths that find them”

  1. I really believe that the onus is on publisher’s to acknowledge the work of sleuths outside their organization.

    Unfortunately, the reputation of many publishers is already tarnished – people from outside their organization such as sleuths have worked for free & in many cases so do reviewers of manuscripts. Given the costs of journal subscriptions & APCs for open access publishing it would be the very least that they could be doing to re-establish their credibility. They appear to not be able to manage fraud on their own, despite repeatedly saying that it is a priority. The long delays in retracting papers given available evidence also do not help – they signal to everyone very loudly where a particular publisher’s priorities lie.

  2. The effacement of the work of whistleblowers/sleuths is strange. Demonstrating that a published article is fraudulent is itself a distinct form of scholarly research. In 2018 I wrote a warning for whistleblowers, and it still holds true: “all of the evidence compiled by the whistleblower may be published with the correction, but presented as the discovery of an investigating research integrity office or the discovery of the editors of the original publication. In short: whistleblowers should not be under the illusion that they will be thanked or acknowledged for their work, and even if they are successful in getting the scholarly record corrected their work may be credited publicly to another party altogether.” (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-99435-2_5)

  3. Something to consider on the flip side: making the contributions of sleuths explicit puts a target on their backs. As has happened to Elisabeth Bik, and reported here on RW.

    I can also speak from my own experience in correcting mathematical errors (by publishing comments, which have passed peer review 100% of the time that I’ve submitted them) in the literature. I do it under my real name and my university affiliation. As a consequence, I have receiving threats, abusive emails, been hounded on social media (such as ResearchGate), amongst other unpleasant experiences. Of course, I try not to let it get to me, but it is a real concern with being identified as someone who stands up for scientific integrity.

    1. The Internet is plagued by anonymity, made worse by social media companies that think that verification of humanity is some special reward for being verified famous instead of being not a bot / spammer.

  4. A problem arises when it is not a sleuth, but perhaps a grad student still under the thumb of a PI who informed the journal. It can go both ways. In my 2014 investigation of reporting plagiarism to medical journals, I had my name published FOUR times (including my address) without asking me if I wanted to be named. In one case, I am listed on PubMed as the *author*:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26539398/
    This has resulted in me, a computer scientist, being spammed to submit my work as a dentist / diabetes researcher / blood researcher ever since. Including email invitations that praise my good research in the publication listed above.

    Before publishing any name (author or otherwise) the person should be contacted and asked if they want to be / should be named. Elisabeth Bik, Brian Perron, and I can take it. Others can’t, so there can be no one rule to deal with the situation.

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