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Fake scientific papers and paper mills stem scientific progress

H Q Team

May 11, 2023: In the niche world of academic publishing fraud, fake journals and papers abound. Publishing groups masquerading as legitimate scientific journals dupe gullible authors and charge hundreds or thousands of dollars in processing fees. Some others write bogus articles or get them written from paper mills to pad their publication record to pass their pseudoscientific ideas as serious research.

It isn’t easy to find out if a journal is legitimate. They have a professional-looking website; links to different volumes of the journal;  open access; a legit editorial board ( if you look deep, some members will be long dead); and even digital object identifiers.

A prime example of fraudulent research is the number of articles doing the rounds about the immense harm that 5G towers can cause. Albeit some concerns may be legit but a paper claiming that 5G radio signals cause coronavirus was published in The Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents. A website that does quality checks on science publishing ethics found the journal claims to be fishy because some members of its editorial board were dead. The article, co-authored by an Iranian scientist with a research background in decapitating quails, carried complete nonsense and even quoted nonsensical mathematical equations to make its point.

It was shared widely on social media, and conspiracy sites picked up the story and ran with it. The journal that published the article was indexed by PubMed, which gave it a stamp of authority. The journal later retracted the article (  [retraction notice – archived – PDF]. But the whole story begs the question — What real scientific journal would publish such a bizarre paper?

Paper mills

The problem lies in the pressure on researchers and scientists to publish and pad up their CVs. On the other hand, publishing science papers is lucrative as journals can charge from a few hundred to thousands for publishing open-access articles.

It is difficult to find out if a journal is legitimate. They have a professional-looking website; links to different volumes of the journal;  open access; a legit editorial board ( if you look deep, some members will be long dead); and even digital object identifiers.

Paper mills are another problem. These publishing companies churn out papers made-to-order. Perfectly written, data-supported, legitimate-looking scientific papers that are collated from various sources with no original research. Chinese researchers are some of the world’s most prolific publishers of scientific papers. There is general agreement that China is one of the world’s worst offenders

The Institute for Scientific Information, a US-based research analysis organisation, found that China produced 3.7mn papers in 2021 — 23 per cent of global output — and just behind the 4.4mn total from the US.
David Bimler, a psychologist at Massey University in New Zealand has identified 150 biomedical papers from Jilin University that used the same few data sets. Jilin University’s name up quite often as a frequent research offender.

An investigation in 2022 by the joint Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope) concluded: “The submission of suspected fake research papers . . . is growing and threatens to overwhelm the editorial processes of a significant number of journals.”

Nature published an article in 2017 where hundreds of bogus applications for a made-up scientist to serve as an editor were sent out to predatory publishers. Dozens of journals were ready to hire that scientist without any due diligence. Others send fake research papers in an attempt to expose such journals.

According to Financial Times, estimates of the extent of fake scientific output vary enormously, from 2 per cent to 20 per cent or more of published papers. Paper mills make over €1billion a year.

It is an open secret that scientists buy papers from third-party firms to help their careers, but what is new is that journals are now more rigorous and open to announcing their mistakes and retracting the papers.

How to weed out such spurious and predatory publishers?

The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), representing 120 publishers, has floated an Integrity Hub to develop new tools to detect plagiarism and paper mill publications. “There is a bit of an arms race,” says Joris van Rossum, the Integrity Hub’s product director. He said one reliable sign of a fake is referencing many retracted papers; another is manuscripts and reviews emailed from fraudulent internet addresses.

Twenty publishers, including Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley, are part of the effort, and 10 of the publishers are expected to use a paper mill detector the group unveiled in April. This will build sharing of tools and cooperation among the various publishers to stem the flow.“It will never be an [fully] automated process,” the hub spokesperson says. Rather, the tools are like “a spam filter … you still want to go through your spam filter every week” to check for erroneously flagged legitimate content.

To avoid flagging genuine as fake content is a work in progress, and some human ingenuity and interference are still needed.

There are concerns that open access fees, which are a great source of revenue for publishers, might give rise to a conflict of interest. Discernment, common sense, and a universal guideline, such as the newly updated guidelines for journals issued in April may help .

If anything, the pandemic has shown us how accurate science and research are vital to public health.




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