The murky waters of publication fraud

01 July 2023
Gwen Weerts

Several months ago, I purchased a burner phone, created a fake name and an AI-generated profile photo, and embarked on an undercover sting operation that is both nerdy and riveting: I am trying to identify the perpetrators of scientific publication fraud.

Though scientific fraud has been a problem from the beginning of documented science, the volume and frequency has exploded, as is evidenced by the profusion of paper retractions in the past two years. The scale is enormous on every front. There have been mass retractions of dozens or even hundreds of papers by reputable publishers like SPIE, IEEE, and IOP. A recent preprint (based on an extremely controversial method) has garnered significant media attention for its estimate that one in five scholarly journal articles may contain data created by a paper mill—an illicit entity that is paid to make up data or entire papers. What’s more, many scholarly publishers have unearthed evidence of peer-review fraud in special issues. The extent of this fraud was significant enough that Hindawi, a large publisher owned by Wiley, decided to discontinue four journal titles due to concerns that they were irredeemably compromised by paper mills.

That we are aware of the prevalence of these massive retractions is due mainly to a few dozen crusaders for trust in science. The popular website Retraction Watch, for example, keeps close tabs on unethical publishing behavior, and is quick to call out researchers, journals, and publishers who they perceive are failing to uphold high ethical standards. The site is also the first to report on large-scale retractions and well-known researchers at the center of publication scandals. Another website, Pubpeer: The Online Journal Club, allows users to publicly post questions or criticisms about published papers. Its sleuths have daylighted many of the problems that led to recent mass retractions.

Fifteen years ago, at the beginning of my career in scholarly publishing, the most prevalent forms of publication misconduct and fraud were dual submissions, dual publication, plagiarism, and faked or falsified data. Sophisticated software was developed to detect these classic scams and became a mainstay of publisher toolkits. For a time, publishers felt confident that the papers they published had been vetted appropriately and deserved a place in the scientific literature. However, behind the scenes, new fraudsters were emerging with larger-scale and harder-to-detect schemes.

These new forms of publication fraud make the old-school frauds seem quaint and manageable, like the chain letter schemes that were popular in the 1980s. Peer review rings, paper mills, citation cartels, sham journals, machine-generated text, and authorship for sale are the scams of today.

These schemes, operating alone or in concert, serve the “publish or perish” academic industry by providing, for a fee, guaranteed publication or citation—sometimes both. Special issues, also known as collections, thematic issues, and special sections, are common practices for scholarly journals, whereby a team of guest editors manage peer review and editorial decisions with a degree of autonomy that has proven easy to exploit. These special collections have provided fertile ground for these types of fraud to thrive. The problem is so pervasive that COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, recently released guidelines for best practices on managing guest-edited collections.

However, it was the mention of the sale of authorship for publication in a well-known journal, seen in a comment on Pubpeer, that prompted me to create my undercover persona. A quick search on Facebook led to an ecosystem of groups offering “editorial services” or “paper writing support,” euphemisms that encompass activities such as evading plagiarism detection or guaranteeing publication in various Web of Science and Scopus-indexed journals, for prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Interested buyers are directed to WhatsApp or Telegram, where titles and topics of available papers with “author positions available” are listed multiple times a day.

Publication fraud is also not limited to “other people.” Every researcher needs to take some precautions, as Anca Turcu, a senior lecturer at the University of Central Florida, discovered in March. While browsing her Google Scholar profile in preparation for a review, she discovered the title of a paper that she did not write, about a topic having nothing to do with her research, in a journal she had never heard of. To make matters worse, the article was plagiarized. The article appears to be an attempt by a disreputable publication to bolster its image by including papers “authored” by well-known researchers. Turcu's experience emphasizes the importance of researchers conducting periodic audits of their Google Scholar profiles.

Moreover, scientists should be wary of offers to collaborate as guest editors on a special issue with unfamiliar people. In recent cases, there are examples of researchers with legitimate research records being associated with known bad actors as guest editors on special sections. The invitee likely assessed the inviter's credibility based on their Google Scholar profile, saw a prolific publication history and high H-index, and agreed to participate. Because modern publication fraud can massively inflate H indices and publication records, additional careful screening must be done of potential academic collaborators. This is aligned with best practice for cybersecurity, which warns us to be very wary of collaborations with anyone we haven’t met personally or professionally.

The final and possibly most important takeaway is to publish research papers with reputable publishers, particularly nonprofit or society publishers. The latter are not immune to infiltration by bad actors, as the opening of this article points out, but they’re also not motivated by monetary gain—an incentive that has likely allowed publication fraud to flourish among for-profit open access publishers, where paper volume equals profit. Nonprofit and society publishers, on the other hand, are quick to identify and root out fraud when it’s discovered, and they are motivated only by integrity and service to their research community.

Meanwhile, my undercover sting operation into authorship for sale continues with the intensity of a Mission: Impossible movie (played at 1/100th speed and with 100 percent fewer explosions). If, in the end, I can uncover the name of even one person to hold accountable for creating distrust in science, it will be worth the chase.


Gwen Weerts is the Editor in Chief of Photonics Focus, and the SPIE Journals Manager.


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