Want to End Fake Peer Reviews?

What’s behind paper retractions? (30)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 05/2015

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

Retraction Watch’s Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky tell you how easily it can be done.

By now, you may have heard about a relatively new – but alarming – phenomenon: researchers figuring out how to get their papers published without true peer review. In August, Springer announced it was retracting 64 papers for this reason, while SAGE said it was retracting 17. At the time of this writing, publishers have retracted 250 papers since 2012 because authors either did their own peer review or had others do the peer review, sometimes unbeknownst to them.

Shockingly simple

How did this happen? (“And why didn’t I think of it?,” you’re probably muttering.) The answer is: quite easily. Indeed, gaming the peer review system turns out to be shockingly simple to do – and just as easy to prevent.

As we’ve recounted elsewhere (Nature, November 26th, 2015, Publishing: The peer-review scam), when journal editors ask authors to suggest potential reviewers for their manuscripts, the authors provide names, “sometimes of real scientists and sometimes pseudonyms, often with bogus e-mail addresses that would go directly to him or his colleagues”.

A vulnerable editorial system

The problem has affected major publishers, from Elsevier to Springer to Wiley. The most recent cases were from China and Iran, but the practice has also been found in South Korea and Pakistan. What the cases have in common are two factors: one, editors asked authors to suggest reviewers when they submitted the papers; two, the people submitting the papers – who were not always the authors – were able to enter fake email addresses for those suggested reviewers, or reassign reviewers, without editors knowing, thanks to the particular editorial systems those publishers use.

Thankfully, that makes eliminating the problem fairly straightforward. For one, journals could stop asking authors to recommend reviewers – or do as some editors do and use those lists to eliminate possible reviewers, figuring they were chosen because they wouldn’t be terribly critical. Some editors may insist that the hyper-specialisation of their fields makes asking for suggested reviewers necessary. That’s fair enough and it’s also a strong argument for implementing the second way to end fake peer reviewers – namely, doing more to verify digital identities.

Currently, journals (like anyone else at the other end of an electronic exchange) can’t be sure that an author or reviewer is who she says she is (although, in the case of research misconduct, most malefactors are male.) The systems for collecting peer reviews that journals use could close the loophole by forcing editors to verify entered email addresses, or, even better, requiring them to connect with the ORCID database of authors to validate identities.

What’s the next big scam?

Of course, fraudsters are clever and they’re probably already thinking about – or even implementing – the next big scam. And other hoaxers, trying to expose the lack of peer review at some journals, have managed to get completely fake papers published. We’d need to eliminate the causes of this kind of fraud – pressures to publish or perish come to mind – to really end such scams. But taking these initial steps can’t hurt.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com

Last Changed: 15.09.2015