Peer-review cheating ring discredits another 43 papers

By Fiona BARRY contact

- Last updated on GMT

BMC retracted 43 more papers in its journals because of peer-review cheating. (Image: Research to Action/CC)
BMC retracted 43 more papers in its journals because of peer-review cheating. (Image: Research to Action/CC)
Publisher BioMed Central has withdrawn 43 papers from its scientific journals after discovering a conspiracy to rig peer review runs deeper than previously thought. 

Third party agencies supplied “fabricated details of potential peer reviewers for a large number of manuscripts submitted to different journals,​” said BioMed Central.

BioMed Central's affected journals

BMC's affected journals

  • Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • European Journal of Medical Research
  • Diagnostic Pathology
  • Journal of Ovarian Research
  • BMC Gastroenterology
  • BMC Neurology
  • Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research
  • BMC Cardiovascular Disorders
  • BMC Cancer
  • World Journal of Surgical Oncology
  • BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders
  • Journal of Medical Case Reports

The peer review process “was inappropriately influenced and compromised​” by fake reviewers in twelve of the publisher’s journals. Pharmacology-related papers include a meta-analysis of cilostazol,​ a study of triptolide in rats,​ and an examination of biomarkers in chemotherapy.

The discovery is part of a larger scam which dates back to 2012 and has provoked retractions in journals published by Nature, Elsevier, SAGE, and Springer. BioMed Central’s latest announcement adds to around 50 of the publisher’s manuscripts hit by the same problem a few months ago.

Pervasive “pressure to publish​” and a system of “perverse incentives” ​is at the heart of the cheating, a Senior Editor claimed.   

Fake emails

Journals became aware of widespread review-rigging in 2012, when the editor of The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry became suspicious about certain reviews which were written in under 24 hours.

The journal – like many others – has an online option for authors to directly suggest reviewers for their papers. Using this facility, one author had provided names of both real and fake scientists, all with bogus non-academic email addresses which allowed him to review his own work under aliases.

A similar practice happened at other journals and implicated scientists who had no idea their names were being used by fake reviewer accounts. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) announced last December it was aware of “systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.​”

An investigation discovered third-party agencies which write manuscripts and fabricate contact details of peer reviewers for a fee from authors, as well as those offering legitimate services like submissions and proof-reading.

Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious,​” said COPE.

Who’s to blame?

BioMed Central said it could not determine “beyond doubt​” that the authors of the 43 papers it retracted last week were aware of third-party attempts to manipulate peer review.

Some researchers who engaged an agency for help with language or style “may have innocently become implicated in attempts to manipulate the peer review process by disreputable services,​” said Senior Editor, Research Integrity at BioMed Central, Elizabeth Moylan.

COPE said nonetheless the scientific integrity of the manuscripts had been undermined, and the forged reviews had contradicted its guidance.

Moylan also defended the journal’s staff:

It is understandable that editors trusted that authors were acting with honest and good intentions especially when apparently legitimate peer reviewer names were provided, but false or disguised emails given,​” she said.

‘Pressure to publish’

BioMed Central has now turned off the ability for authors to nominate potential peer reviewers online and requires suggestions to be made with institutional letterheads or email addresses.  

But the problem may be larger.

Moylan referred to the “pressure to publish​” and said “a sad reality is that this problem is sourced at a higher level than publishers alone can tackle.​”

Perverse incentives​” reward scientists for the recorded impact of their work rather than its quality, she said.

A recent report​ from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the Culture of Scientific Research in the UK echoed this view.

Chair of the steering group and University of Cambridge professor Ottoline Leyser said UK scientists feel under pressure from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to publish “in specific journals with high impact factors, despite the fact that REF panels were instructed not to use journal impact factors to assess research quality.​”

BioMed Central’s retracted papers can be viewed here.

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