Inappropriate manipulation of peer review

Following a thorough investigation, we can now provide a further update on our discovery last year of attempts to manipulate the peer review process at several of our journals.

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In November last year, BioMed Central uncovered evidence of repeated and inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review process of several journals (see our original statement and update).

The apparent intention was to deceive Editors and positively influence the outcome of peer review by suggesting fabricated reviewers. Given the scale of the deception, we alerted COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) and a number of other publishers. COPE issued a statement providing further advice for publishers. PLOS also recently issued a statement here.

Although we originally found only a handful of affected published articles, a subsequent extensive and systematic search of all of our journals identified 43 articles that were published on the basis of reviews from fabricated reviewers.

After contacting the authors involved, and notifying their institutions, we have now begun retracting these articles. We have also contacted institutions about a much larger number of rejected articles where the names of fabricated reviewers had been supplied.

Some of the manipulations appear to have been conducted by third-party agencies offering language-editing and submission assistance to authors. It is unclear whether the authors of the manuscripts involved were aware that the agencies were proposing fabricated reviewers on their behalf or whether authors proposed fabricated names directly themselves.

Responsibility of authors, editors and publishers

We are aware that many researchers entrust their manuscripts to reputable third-party agencies for ‘language polishing’ or assistance with submission. It is possible that some researchers may have innocently become implicated in attempts to manipulate the peer review process by disreputable services.

“The communication of research is about people and about trust
– Committee on Publication Ethics

Trust is at the heart of the peer review system, which operates on the assumption that authors, reviewers and all others involved are genuine and act in a transparent manner. 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).

During the course of our investigation, authors have shared with us the names of third-party agencies that offer support to authors but also guarantee favourable peer review outcomes in return for a fee. Other services sell authorship on entire papers written by others. Clearly, there is a need to distinguish the characteristics of reputable third-party agencies from those that are dishonest (in much the same way that bona fide open access publishers can be distinguished from those that are predatory).

As a result of these inappropriate manipulations we have turned off the facility for authors to directly enter the names of potential peer reviewers in our submission system. Other publishers have also followed suit. However, our Editors are of course free to invite authors to provide suggestions in the cover letter that accompanies submission of their manuscript, with an institutional email address, or information which will help the editor to verify the identities of the reviewers.

Pressure to publish

Although publishers should do as much as possible to preserve best practice in publication ethics –from supporting authors, Editors and peer reviewers, to putting in place appropriate checks and balances – a sad reality is that this problem is sourced at a higher level than publishers alone can tackle.

At a recent NC3Rs workshop on publication bias Emily Sena acknowledged that science is set up with perverse incentives that reward scientists for ‘impact’ and ‘productivity’ rather than for the quality of their research or the ability to replicate studies. These are sentiments which have been stressed by Ginny Barbour, Chair of COPE who cites the recent report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the Culture of Scientific Research in the UK.

COPE is working with publishers, publishing organizations and relevant national bodies to determine how best to address this situation in the longer term. They encourage anyone with information on these issues to contact COPE directly.

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10 Comments

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Jared Beekman

I’m very happy to see your organization being upfront and transparent about what happened, the possibility that researchers were mislead, and continuing this investigation. Hopefully all publishers will do so and peer review can be fixed.

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Jacopo

It is a good news for people whom are working hard to publish real results and real science. Where can I find the list of these 43 retracted papers?

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spd

Thank you for providing the link. However, it returned only 1 retracted article. I found that searching for “retraction” using the search box at top right on the BioMed Central home page returned a date-ordered list of retracted articles, including those retracted March 27 and March 26.

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Albert Donnay

I am glad BMC opposes bogus peer reviewers getting paid through third parties

Does BMC also oppose paying legitimate peer-reviewers directly, or are its journal editors allowed to pay them as they see fit?

COPE is unfortunately silent on this question.

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Stephanie Harriman

Thank you for your comment. Like many other publishers, BioMed Central does not pay peer reviewers and peer review is conducted voluntarily by academics in the field. Your question does however raise the much wider question of how best to credit peer reviewers for their valuable contributions, which is an important issue. Initiatives such as publication of reviewer acknowledgements, publication of reviewers’ reports in journals operating open peer review, and services such as Academic Karma (discussed in this piece in Biome – http://biome.biomedcentral.com/academic-karma-way-get-credit-peer-review/) are some of the practices working towards better credit for peer reviewers. We have covered various peer review models on our blogs – part of this blog discusses credit for peer review (http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcblog/2014/04/28/are-there-alternatives-to-peer-review/) and here’s a blog from GigaScience about Publons, which also gives credit for peer review (http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/gigablog/2014/07/03/gigascience-making-open-peer-review-more-open-qa-with-publons-co-founder-andrew-preston/).

Stephanie Harriman, Medical Editor

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Albert Donnay

Thanks for these links and your clear statement about BMC not paying its peer reviewers –which I support.

Without naming any names, how many academic journals are you aware of that do pay all or some their peer-reviewers?

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Author
Elizabeth Moylan

We aren’t aware of a comprehensive list of journals which pay their peer reviewers. This depends on the particular journal and you would have to check their individual information.

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Iain O'Neill

RE “Some of the manipulations appear to have been conducted by third-party agencies offering language-editing and submission assistance to authors. ”

Elizabeth, At some point, somewhere, you i.e., BMC will have to share details of this complicity by 3rd part agencies (and surely none that BMC recommend) – preferably in a transparent manner – i.e., what agencies, were they disclosed in the process etc
Otherwise its akin to the ….’a bad man did it and ran away’ explanation

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Elizabeth Moylan

While investigations are under way we cannot comment further at the present time. We have shared our concerns with the relevant institutions who we believe are best placed to investigate further. We are happy to work with the BMJ or any other publishers on this issue via COPE and to share any definitive outcomes of the institutional investigations in due course.

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