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Crooks pose as guest editors to get fake papers published

The crooks have impersonated researchers to gain access to reputable journals and publish special issues filled with absurd articles.Credit: Getty

Hundreds of articles published in peer-reviewed journals are being withdrawn after crooks exploited special issue publication processes to get shoddy articles – sometimes full gibberish – in established journals. In some cases, fraudsters have masqueraded as scientists and offered guests to edit numbers which they then filled out with false papers.

Elsevier is withdrawing 165 articles currently in press and plans to withdraw 300 more that were published as part of 6 special issues in one of its journals, and Springer Nature is withdrawal 62 items published in a special issue of a journal. The retractions come after editors each expressed concern earlier this year, covering hundreds of articles.

Scientific integrity experts expect more investigations to be carried out in the coming months as other headlines realize they have been duped.

“It’s very worrying,” says Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse in France, who has worked to uncover absurd scientific articles in special issues. He adds that it is shocking to see such articles in “flagship” publisher journals and that “it’s not just predatory journals that publish bullshit”.

A spokesperson for Springer Nature said an investigation revealed “deliberate attempts to subvert the trust-based editorial process and manipulate the publication dossier.” They added that they did not yet know who was responsible (Nature is editorially independent from its publisher).

Elsevier says it has measures in place to prevent similar problems from recurring in the future.

Special issue scam

Many journals publish special issues – collections of articles that focus on a particular topic relevant to their readers. These questions are often overseen by guest editors who are experts in the research subject, but who are generally not involved in the daily editorial work of the journal.

Fraudsters have been arrested several times in recent years trying to use special issues to get shoddy articles published in legitimate journals, but the number of articles affected appears to be increasing.

In 2016, the site Retraction watch reported that crooks posed as a scientist known to deceive The Journal of the Scientific World, published by Hindawi, appointing them as guest editor of a special issue on metaheuristics. A subsequent investigation by the publisher found that several peer review reports for the articles published in the special issue were from compromised email accounts owned by other researchers. Hindawi said Retraction watch that he had no idea who was behind the scam and that he had measures in place to help prevent the problem from happening again.

In December 2020, Springer Nature’s Nanoparticle Research Journal wrote that he had been “attacked in a new way by a sophisticated and organized network”. A group of what appeared to be prominent computer scientists and engineers from well-known institutions in Germany and the UK wrote to the journal’s editors to suggest a special issue on the role of nanotechnology in healthcare in September 2019. The Editorial Board accepted the proposal. , created a special issue entry in their editorial management system and gave access to three members of the group so that they could manage the manuscripts.

Months later, some members of the editorial board began to notice that most of the manuscripts submitted for the special issue were of poor quality or did not match the theme. They launched an investigation, but by that time 19 of the 80 submissions had already been accepted or published. These papers have since been retracted.

The investigation found that the people who suggested the special issue were not who they claimed to be, but were rather crooks using Internet domain names that closely resembled the institutional email addresses of real scientists. These included an email suffix with “univ” instead of “uni” and “-ac.uk” instead of “.ac.uk”. There were also anomalies in the identity of the peer reviewers and the peer review reports.

“All the evidence points to an organized network that tries – in this case successfully – to infiltrate scientific journals with the aim of easily publishing manuscripts of pseudo-scientists or less productive researchers who wish to appear in respectable journals,” said writes three members. from the journal’s editorial board in the December article.

Unclear motivations

It is not yet clear why the crooks are manipulating the system to post fake articles. Cabanac suggests that this could be due to pressure on researchers to publish articles to further their careers. The ability to publish in specific journals – even if the articles are clearly absurd – could allow some researchers “to get publications for their CVs and a green card to stay in academia,” he says.

But the motivations of the crooks remain a mystery to Ivan Oransky, a journalist who directs Retraction watch. Even the titles of articles, which would be listed in an individual’s publication folder, often make no sense, he says. “Papers are so obviously terrible, so why would you want them on your resume?” He adds that it is not clear whether scams linked to special numbers are becoming more and more common or if they are simply becoming more visible. “I think the newspapers are realizing it, are actually researching it and have systems in place,” he says.

The latest retractions from Springer Nature and Elsevier suggest that the practice is becoming more sophisticated and widespread. In July, Elsevier raised concerns about more than 400 articles published in 6 special issues of Microprocessors and microsystems after the headline editor had concerns about the integrity and peer review of the articles. Most of the articles were from authors based in Chinese institutions and most contained absurd sentences that Elsevier said came from using reverse translation software to cover up the plagiarism.

Elsevier says the issue arose due to a temporary configuration error in their editorial system, which was fixed as soon as it was discovered. The publisher has withdrawn 165 articles in press and plans to withdraw 300 more. He says he validates the identity and qualifications of guest editors, and now asks the editor or members of the editorial board to confirm acceptance of each article so that any irregularities are reported as they arise. progress measurement of a special issue.

The publisher is also working with Cabanac and his colleagues to develop open source computer tools that can report when articles contain automatically generated scientific text.

Springer Nature has so far retracted 62 of the 436 articles published in the “thematic collections” of the Arab Journal of Geosciences that he marked with expressions of concern in September. The prose in many of the articles concerned swings between research on two seemingly unrelated topics. For example, 71 articles have abstracts or titles that contain the words “dance”, “aerobics” or “sports” in relation to geoscience, including articles “Sea level height based on big data from the Internet of Things and Aerobic Education in Coastal Areas “and” Stress and Strain Characteristics of Rocks Based on SVM and High Intensity Sporting Interval Training. “24 other articles in a special issue of Personal and ubiquitous computing are equally under investigation at Springer Nature.

The publisher says that in addition to putting in place additional controls, it is developing artificial intelligence tools capable of identifying and preventing attempts to deliberately manipulate the system. It also collects evidence on how deceptions are carried out to share with other publishers. “We will not tolerate deliberate attempts to subvert the publication process,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Oransky says the big question now is what the editors do with special issues. They could pose a credibility problem, “even if it is guilt by association.” Whatever happens, there are sure to be more retractions to come.