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.