Monday, April 24, 2017

Scientists Behaving Badly

The journal Tumor Biology is retracting 107 research papers after discovering that the authors faked the peer review process. This isn’t the journal’s first rodeo. Late last year, 58 papers were retracted from seven different journals— 25 came from Tumor Biology for the same reason.

It’s possible to fake peer review because authors are often asked to suggest potential reviewers for their own papers. This is done because research subjects are often blindingly niche; a researcher working in a sub-sub-field may be more aware than the journal editor of who is best-placed to assess the work.

But some journals go further and request, or allow, authors to submit the contact details of these potential reviewers. If the editor isn’t aware of the potential for a scam, they then merrily send the requests for review out to fake e-mail addresses, often using the names of actual researchers. And at the other end of the fake e-mail address is someone who’s in on the game and happy to send in a friendly review.
I would like to point out that the same practice occurs with grant reviews. Even NSF requests you submit a list of likely reviewers, and even a list of people you believe couldn't review it fairly. I would hope they would vet those reviewers better than a journal would, since the granting programs have paid staff to do the work, but I'm not sure the same scam wouldn't work occasionally.
Fake peer reviewers often “know what a review looks like and know enough to make it look plausible,” said Elizabeth Wager, editor of the journal Research Integrity & Peer Review. But they aren’t always good at faking less obvious quirks of academia: “When a lot of the fake peer reviews first came up, one of the reasons the editors spotted them was that the reviewers responded on time,” Wager told Ars. Reviewers almost always have to be chased, so “this was the red flag. And in a few cases, both the reviews would pop up within a few minutes of each other.”
Now that's funny. They were busted because, in real life, real scientists are too busy to want to do many reviews, even though they know that the system requires them to function. So, to have three or four reviews come in on time without having to be nagged would be unheard of in any journal I ever published in or reviewed for.
It’s not always the authors providing the reviews. "There is some evidence that so-called third-party language-editing services play a role in manipulating the reviewing process,” said a spokesperson for Springer, the company that published Tumor Biology until this year. Scientists who work in a language other than English may use editing services to polish their papers before submitting to a journal, and some of these services can be unethical and predatory, says Wager.
Articles from foreign authors can be a bear to review. The English is often bad, and when it's not bad it's usually very stilted. I tried to make a point of trying to overlook it. I can easily imagine a "paper polishing" business turn into a "get it published by any means necessary" affair.

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