Editorial ethics: fraudulent arbitration

Photo: Jake Bouma

Photo: Jake Bouma.

Despite all precautions and professional seriousness with which international prestigious scientific journals operate, in recent months started to emerge worrying signs of fraud in the arbitration process (peer review) which led to the retraction of hundreds of articles. This includes journals published by major publishing groups such as, among others, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, PLoS, Nature Publishing Group, and BioMed Central.

The research results obtained by independent teams bring up grounded suspicion that behind these cases of scientific misconduct, there are organized companies operating lucrative trade with fraudulent review processes. For example, providing researchers the possibility to add their name among the authors of a paper which is being accepted by a payment of up to US$ 15,000 depending on the journal’s Impact Factor where the article is to be published. Another procedure used is to take advantage of weaknesses in the processing articles software from publishers, entering “ghost” reviewers with no institutional addresses, allowing even that the author himself of an article could be one of the reviewers of his own article, on several occasions.

A survey conducted by Scientific American examined the language of 100 articles containing suspicious text patterns, with the appearance of having been manipulated to overcome plagiarism controls but which, however, were repeated from one article to the other (see how to cheat programs in the note below).

Among the investigated cases stands out the 32 meta-analysis articles, where a certain text “pattern” was repeated and applied to different articles on variations of certain genes. The articles came from at least 28 researchers, working in different institutions in at least four different cities in China. This is not a simple case of plagiarism, where independent researchers are copying the same text segment by chance. On the contrary, the suspect text contains a very curious and revealing feature which mentions the “Begger’s funnel plot”, which does not exist. This name is an accidental error made by mixing the names of the Statistics researchers Colin Begg and Matthias Egger, who invented a statistical tool to detect bias in meta-analysis studies.

The case study (Begger’s funnel plot) was carried out by Guillon Filion1 in a survey worth of the TV series CSI which, using computational phylogenetic techniques that can reconstruct the genealogy of articles, concluded that the different articles coming from different institutions had a common ghostwriter in an institution that provided services in China.

The Scientific American staff came into contact with MedChina, an institution that offers dozens of topics for sale and contracts for transfer of articles to scientific journals. The representative of MedChina explained that the articles offered for sale have been through the arbitration process, and just need to be corrected and resubmitted for publication. The price depends on the Impact Factor of the journal requested and if the research is experimental or meta-analysis. This problem of selling articles and projects arises not only at the level of scientific publications because, in the words of Yang Wei, president of the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC)2, they face the problem every year when more than 150,000 requests the competitive funding should be evaluated and there are hundreds of cases of “substantial similarity”.

Nature recently published a series of indicators (tips) to publishers that could be warning signs that the author was trying to take advantage of the weaknesses of automated arbitration system to ensure that the reviewer of his works can be himself, or any of his acquaintances who he has recommended.

  • The author calls for the exclusion of some referees and provides a list of most scientists in the area.
  • The author recommends as reviewers people who are not easily found online.
  • The author provides e-mail addresses on Yahoo or Gmail, and not in academic institutions addresses.
  • Articles sent to the reviewer are returned in a very short time, sometimes only in hours.

The world of scientific publication is based, ultimately, on a system of honesty, trust and ethics. If the arbitration system begins to be undermined, it presents a significant threat which, once damaged, will be very difficult to restore. For this reason the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) intervened3 and began working with editors, publishers, and relevant national entities to determine how to address this new situation on the long-term.

Reflections

The stiff competition between researchers to get their articles published in refereed prestigious journals, enabling them to advance in their academic careers or get financing for projects, makes that in some cases certain people descend levels of ethics and fall before dubious offerings to achieve “a place in the sun”.

Apparently it is emerging a new commercial activity called “paper mills”. If there are people who want to buy, it will always be someone who wants to sell. The “paper mills” add a new perspective of complexity to the plagiarism problem and to scientific publishing.

Comments on recent weeks in specialized blogs add many suggestions. To professionalize executive journal editors, to improve arbitration software management, not allow authors to suggest reviewers in journals that offer this possibility, or to stimulate the concept of open access arbitration?

We have a new problem, solutions are accepted.

Note on how to trick the automated plagiarism controls

To overcome the controls of text plagiarism detection software, it is sufficient to use an almost handmade procedure.

  1. Take the text of your article and proceed to plagiarism control with one of the classic software (iThenticate, Turnitin, Urkund, or any other).
  2. The result will be a document with a series of observations on the parts of your text recognized as plagiarism.
    2.1. Modify the paragraphs marked as suspicious, changing the order of a few sentences, making paraphrases, or using synonyms.
    2.2. Another procedure is to translate the text into another language using Google and returning the translation. For example, write in English, translate into Portuguese, then in Spanish, and finally back to English.
  3. Return to step (1) until the text appears without comments.
  4. If there are no comments, then your text will not be considered plagiarism by the control software.

The procedure can be long and laborious, reason why some people wonder whether it would be better that the author directly writes the article4.

Notes

1 FILION, G. A flurry of copycats on PubMed. The Grand Locus. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://blog.thegrandlocus.com/2014/10/a-flurry-of-copycats-on-pubmed.

2 For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. Scientific American. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/for-sale-your-name-here-in-a-prestigious-science-journal/.

3 COPE statement on inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes. Publication Ethics. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://publicationethics.org/news/cope-statement-inappropriate-manipulation-peer-review-processes.

4 “It’s fun to see new methods of chicanery surface the perpetrators are so inventive. In some cases you would think it was easier just to do the work right in the first place”). Comment by Conrad Seitz.
It’s happened again: Journal “cannot rule out” possibility author did his own peer review. Retraction Watch. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/11/10/it-happened-again-journal-cannot-rule-out-possibility-author-did-his-own-peer-review/.

References

Are companies selling fake peer reviews to help papers get published? Retraction Watch. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/12/19/companies-selling-fake-peer-reviews-help-papers-get-published/.

Begger’s funnel plot: a marker for irregularities in scientific publication. Vacuum – Edward Vielmetti in Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Available from: http://vielmetti.typepad.com/vacuum/2014/12/beggers-funnel-plot-a-marker-for-irregularities-in-scientific-publication.html.

COPE statement on inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes. Publication Ethics. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://publicationethics.org/news/cope-statement-inappropriate-manipulation-peer-review-processes.

FERGUSON, C, MARCUS, A, and ORANSKY, I. Publishing: The peer-review scam. Nature. 2014, vol. 515, nº 7528, pp. 480-482. [Viewed 27 November 2014] Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/publishing-the-peer-review-scam-1.16400.

FILION, G. A flurry of copycats on PubMed. The Grand Locus. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://blog.thegrandlocus.com/2014/10/a-flurry-of-copycats-on-pubmed.

For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. Scientific American. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/for-sale-your-name-here-in-a-prestigious-science-journal/.

HVISTENDAHL, M. China’s Publication Bazaar. Science. 2013, Vol. 342 nº 6162, pp. 1035-1039. DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6162.1035. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6162/1035.full?sid=bf2d7b4f-0ec2-477b-8ee7-22acf7134d4b.

It’s happened again: Journal “cannot rule out” possibility author did his own peer review. Retraction Watch. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/11/10/it-happened-again-journal-cannot-rule-out-possibility-author-did-his-own-peer-review/.

Publisher discovers 50 manuscripts involving fake peer reviewers. Retraction Watch. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/11/25/publisher-discovers-50-papers-accepted-based-on-fake-peer-reviews/.

The Peer Review Scam: How authors are reviewing their own papers. Retraction Watch. [viewed 26 December 2014]. Available from: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/11/26/the-peer-review-scam-how-authors-are-reviewing-their-own-papers/.

External Link

Retraction Watch – <http://retractionwatch.com/category/by-reason-for-retraction/self-peer-review/>

 

Ernesto SpinakAbout Ernesto Spinak

Collaborator on the SciELO program, a Systems Engineer with a Bachelor’s degree in Library Science, and a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain) and a Master’s in “Sociedad de la Información” (Information Society) from the same university. Currently has a consulting company that provides services in information projects to 14 government institutions and universities in Uruguay.

 

Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

SPINAK, E. Editorial ethics: fraudulent arbitration [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2015 [viewed ]. Available from: https://blog.scielo.org/en/2015/02/20/editorial-ethics-fraudulent-arbitration/

 

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  1. Pingback: Peer review modalities, pros and cons | Urban speeches

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