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Fake Peer Reviews Lead to Mass Retraction of Articles

A leading scientific publisher has retracted 64 articles in 10 journals after an internal investigation discovered fabricated peer-review reports linked to the articles’ publication. The retractions are only the latest batch as scientific publishers struggle to deal with the increasing wave of fake peer review.

Fake peer review occurs when researchers submit an article to a research journal and suggest reviewers, but supply contact details for them that actually route requests for review back to the researchers themselves, or to another party guaranteed to provide a positive review.

Springer announced their retractions of the manuscripts in an 18 August statement, which explains that that the articles are being retracted from the subscription journals after editorial checks spotted fake email addresses, and subsequent internal investigations uncovered fabricated peer review reports.

Springer says in the statement that they immediately reported the finding to the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE), and are following COPE’s recommendations to deal with this issue. Springer says it will continue to participate and do whatever we can to support COPE’s efforts in this matter.

Springer’s announcement comes 9 months after 43 studies were retracted by BioMed Central citing “reviews from fabricated reviewers”.

On August 18, the SAGE journals — which retracted 60 papers for the same reason more than a year ago — added 17 additional retractions to their list.

According to Nature News, the Springer investigation began in November 2014 after a journal editor-in-chief noticed irregularities in contact details for peer reviewers. These included e-mail addresses that the editor suspected were bogus but were accompanied by the names of real researchers. The investigation, which focused on articles for which authors had suggested their own reviewers, detected numerous fabricated peer-review reports. Affected authors and their institutions have been told about the investigation’s findings.

Springer did not name the articles or journals involved. However, a Nature News search of the publisher’s website identified more than 40 retraction notices dated between 17 and 19 August 2015 for articles published in 8 Springer journals.

The Scientist reported that the 64 retractions have not appeared on SpringerLink, but will be easy to find because will all mention the COPE statement from December 2014.

The Washington Post wrote that peer review is supposed to be the pride of the rigorous academic publishing process. Before publication, journals have articles reviewed and approved by experts in the field. But increasingly, journals are finding this complex process to be rigged.

The blog Retraction Watch, which monitors and reports on retractions for fraud, plagiarism, and other dubious practices in the academic publishing industry, says this latest announcement brings the total number of papers withdrawn for fake reviews to 230 in the past 3 years. Those papers make up only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of studies published each year, but have still caused concern among academic publishers.

The Washington Post wrote that Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky, a science journalist with a medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine, said he didn’t know of any instances of retractions for faked peer reviews before 2012. Since then, the practice has accounted for 15% of all retractions logged by his site.

“It’s like a virus that maybe was lying dormant for decades or centuries and all of a sudden, it’s coming out,” Oransky told The Washington Post. “What’s not clear is, are we better at finding it? Or is it actually a new phenomenon?”

It is not clear what authors are responsible for the rigged reviews. In a News Feature published in Nature last fall, Oransky et al told the story of a Korean medicinal plant researcher who wrote peer reviews for 28 of his own papers. In July, the publishing company Hindawi found that 3 of its own editors had subverted the process by creating fake peer reviewer accounts and then using the accounts to recommend articles for publication.

The Washington Post says that investigations into suspicious-sounding reviews have uncovered a number of services selling names and contact information for made-up experts guaranteed to give an expedited, positive review.

Publishers have started to implement policies to prevent use of fake reviewers—some have stopped allowing authors to suggest reviewers, whereas others require peer reviewers to communicate through an institutional e-mail, rather than a Gmail or Yahoo account. Furthermore, editors at most journals are now required to independently verify that the peer reviewers are who they are supposed to be.

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Kristine Novak

Kristine Novak

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About The Author:

Dr. Kristine Novak

Dr. Kristine Novak

Dr. Kristine Novak is a science writer and editor based in San Francisco. She has extensive experience covering gastroenterology, hepatology, immunology, oncology, clinical, and biotechnology research discoveries.

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