Favorable comments from peer reviewers are essential for getting articles published in reputable journals. To assure that the papers they submitted saw print, unscrupulous researchers have obtained that all-important peer approval the easy way: by fraudulently writing the reviews themselves.
Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required for this article) reports on scientists in South Korea, China, and Iran who submitted papers to international journals and gave fictitious e-mail addresses for the potential reviewers they recommended to journal editors. In some cases, even the reviewers themselves were fictitious. In others, the dishonest authors apparently managed to enter and alter a journal’s own database of real reviewers.
The fake e-mail addresses routed the journal editors’ requests for reviews back to the articles’ authors. In the guise of the being the reviewers, the authors sent back comments positive enough to win publication. In the cases the Chronicle cites, the journals discovered the fraud and retracted the articles.
“I find it very shocking,” the Chronicle quotes Laura Schmidt of Elsevier, the journal publisher. But this form of fakery ought to be very easy to prevent with even minimal checking. My experience tracking down academics for interviews shows that getting an established academic’s correct contact information is generally quick and easy. Just about every university has an easily accessible online directory, so ten minutes of an editor’s time ought to suffice for finding evidence that a suggested reviewer actually exists, as well as his or her accurate e-mail address. Beyond that, social networking sites such as LinkedIn can also provide ways of getting in touch with people.
And editors do need to be vigilant these days. As another Chronicle article documents (subscription not required), the great majority of journal retractions result from misconduct rather than from honest mistakes. Citing an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (PNAS) the Chronicle notes that the prevalence of wrongdoing is highest in the most prestigious journals. “Right now we’re incentivizing a lot of behavior that’s not actually constructive to science,” says Ferric Fang, one of the PNAS atricle’s authors. That behavior is happening because hiring committees and funding agencies tend to count, rather than to examine, applicants’ publications, Fang continues.
As the competition for academic jobs and funding increases, so does the pressure to get articles published no matter what. And the Internet obviously provides some interesting opportunities for innovative cheating. That ought to put journals on notice that they need to take the extra effort required to give honest researchers a fair chance.