by Fred Barbash
A major publisher of scholarly medical and science articles has retracted 43 papers because of “fabricated” peer reviews amid signs of a broader fake peer review racket affecting many more publications.
The publisher is BioMed Central, based in the United Kingdom, which puts out 277 peer-reviewed journals. A partial list of the retracted articles suggests most of them were written by scholars at universities in China, including China Medical University, Sichuan University, Shandong University and Jiaotong University Medical School. But Jigisha Patel, associate editorial director for research integrity at BioMed Central, said it’s not “a China problem. We get a lot of robust research of China. We see this as a broader problem of how scientists are judged.”
Meanwhile, the Committee on Publication Ethics, a multidisciplinary group that includes more than 9,000 journal editors, issued a statement suggesting a much broader potential problem. The committee, it said, “has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.” Those journals are now reviewing manuscripts to determine how many may need to be retracted, it said.
Peer review is the vetting process designed to guarantee the integrity of scholarly articles by having experts read them and approve or disapprove them for publication. With researchers increasingly desperate for recognition, citations and professional advancement, the whole peer-review system has come under scrutiny in recent years for a host of flaws and irregularities, ranging from lackadaisical reviewing to cronyism to outright fraud.
Last year, in one of the most publicized scandals, the Journal of Vibration and Control, in the field of acoustics, retracted 60 articles at one time due to what it called a “peer review and citation ring” in which the reviews, mostly from scholars in Taiwan, were submitted by people using fake names.
Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, the co-editors of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks research integrity and first reported the BioMed Central retractions, have counted a total of 170 retractions in the past few years across several journals because of fake peer reviews.
“The problem of fake peer reviewers is affecting the whole of academic journal publishing and we are among the ranks of publishers hit by this type of fraud,” Patel of BioMed’s ethics group wrote in November. “The spectrum of ‘fakery’ has ranged from authors suggesting their friends who agree in advance to provide a positive review, to elaborate peer review circles where a group of authors agree to peer review each others’ manuscripts, to impersonating real people, and to generating completely fictitious characters. From what we have discovered amongst our journals, it appears to have reached a higher level of sophistication. The pattern we have found, where there is no apparent connection between the authors but similarities between the suggested reviewers, suggests that a third party could be behind this sophisticated fraud.”