How fishy email addresses tipped off a sleuth to a paper mill

Anna Abalkina

Anna Abalkina noticed something odd about a psychology paper on the “modern problems of youth extremism”: The corresponding author was affiliated with a university in Russia, but his email address had a domain name from India. 

The unusual domain name was part of a pattern Abalkina, of the Freie Universität Berlin, noticed in hundreds of papers that seemed to have been produced by paper mills

Six of those papers, including the one on youth extremism, had been published in the Journal of Community Psychology, a Wiley title. Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, conducted a detailed review of the six articles, along with the published referee reports and editorial correspondence on Publons, to see if anything else about them was amiss. 

Bishop and Abalkina, who partners with us on the Retraction Watch Hijacked Journals Checker, published their findings in a PsyAviv preprint posted Sept. 5, 2022.

The six papers were published in 2021 and 2022 and have received a total of five citations, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. Topics included the psychology of human beings within urban environments, and ways people might exploit public opinion to manage their social lives.

Besides the fishy email domains, other red flags in the articles included a disorganized structure that made it hard to follow the experiments described, and no attention to ethical review even of experiments involving human subjects. 

“All six papers had serious flaws; we judged that none would be published if proper peer review and editorial scrutiny had taken place,” Abalkina and Bishop write. 

Abalkina and Bishop submitted their preprint to the Journal of Community Psychology prior to posting it to PsyArxiv, as what they called a “stress test” to determine if their work would also be posted with little oversight. 

On the contrary, they received a desk rejection from Michael B. Blank, the journal’s editor in chief. Blank, of the University of Pennsylvania, justified the rejection, in an email obtained by Retraction Watch, with a single sentence: “This is a weak paper based on cursory review of six publications.”

Three days after the preprint was posted, Michael Streeter, Wiley’s Director for Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics, wrote to Abalkina and Bishop to introduce himself and acknowledge the issues they raised. He promised a full investigation, adding: “We are grateful for your ongoing commitment to uphold the integrity of the scholarly record.”

The journal retracted all six articles on January 28, citing Abalkina and Bishop’s work. 

The retraction notices are identical, except for inserting the different online publication dates of the various articles. A representative notice stated:

The above article published online on May 15, 2021 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com), has been retracted by agreement between the Editor, Michael Blank, and John Wiley and Sons Ltd. Following publication, concerns were raised by a third party.1 Further investigation by the publisher revealed concerns about authorship and peer review. The Editor has determined that the article does not meet the required scholarly standards of the journal, and has therefore taken the decision to retract the article. The authors have been informed of this decision.

Writing to Retraction Watch, Bishop noted that Wiley’s retraction in January – based on information provided in September — was speedy: “this is a relatively prompt response compared to what we often see.”

She added, however, that this prompt redress does not resolve the question of how fraudulent papers appeared in the journal in the first place. She credited open peer review with enabling her and Abalkina to prove the fraud, as they could identify suspicious email addresses and also examine the published records of peer review to identify issues.

Blank and Streeter have not replied to requests for comment. 

We wondered how Wiley informed the authors of the decision to retract, given that none of their email addresses worked when we attempted to contact them, and many author’s identities appear to be dubious. 

A Wiley spokesperson told us:

As part of our retraction process, which is aligned with COPE guidelines, we attempted to reach all corresponding and co-authors to communicate the retraction decision. Emails were sent on December 23, 2022 to email addresses in our submission system for the journal. We did not receive a reply from any of the authors that we contacted.

The information that we found online for the authors does not match what is published in the articles. Sometimes the discrepancies are minor, such as a different middle initial. In other cases, we could not find any online presence for the authors at all.

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4 thoughts on “How fishy email addresses tipped off a sleuth to a paper mill”

  1. Could you please tell the readers about the India connection here. It is not clear, why and from where India connection came and just gone after that one line.

    Please clarify

  2. This paper mill registers weird emails with domains .in, .de, .uk, etc. In this very case it was an email with domain name .in (associated with India).

  3. Interesting that Michael Streeter, Wiley’s Director for Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics, picked up on the pre-print within 3-days. Presumably the editor passed it along after the snarky rejection, where it was taken more seriously. I can’t imagine publishers can systematically monitor preprints.

  4. Given the difficulty in contacting the authors or finding an online presence for them, I’m left wondering…what was the point of it all?! As in, did anyone benefit from creating and publishing these fraudulent papers? It seems to make very little sense.

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