Published February 29, 2016
The aim of scientific research is to improve medical knowledge and find better ways to treat disease. As part of...
— William Wilberforce
The peer review process is the pride of rigorous academic publishing. It is a critical component used to maintain the integrity of academic publications and a method used to ensure that information appearing in the scientific and medical literature is thoroughly vetted for accuracy.
The process begins after a researcher submits a paper to an academic journal. The editors of the journal then assign a group of independent reviewers to evaluate and critique the content of paper.1 Often, the researcher submitting the study will offer names of scholars in their field of study who are qualified to undertake the reviews. However, the final decision on the selection of reviewer typically lies in the hands of the journal editors.1
After the reviewers are appointed, they are required to investigate the research methodology used to conduct the study and provide feedback on any further improvements that can be made.1 In cases where the research methodology is flawed, reviewers have the ability to reject the paper. Typically, reviewers have no direct contact with the researchers and communicate their feedback via the editors of the journal who then decide to accept or reject the paper for publication.1
It is no secret that the Internet is a breeding ground for fake identities, fake news, fake audiences, fake credentials, fake job references, fake science, etc.1 But what happens when academic journals disseminating important medical research from universities around the globe are subjected to such disingenuous influences?1 A recent outbreak of fake peer reviewed studies appearing in academic publications has raised serious questions that the public should be asking, given that peer reviewed publications are an important source of scientific data on vaccines used to make medical care recommendations and public health policies and laws.
In the most recent episode around fake peer reviews, Springer, one of the largest academic publisher’s in the world, retracted 64 articles from 10 its journals after uncovering that the reviews were associated with fake e-mail addresses.2 Almost all of the 64 papers were authored by Chinese academics and published in journals on neurobiology, cancer research, biochemistry and other scientific topics.3
This outbreak of fake peer reviews comes nine months after BioMed Central retracted 43 studies for the very same reason.2
According to an academia watchdog, Retraction Watch, since 2012, 230 papers have been retracted due to fake peer reviews.4 Although these papers only make up a fraction of the total studies published every year, it raises serious concerns among those in the academic publishing world.4
Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky, a science journalist with a medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine told the Washington Post:
It’s like a virus that maybe was lying dormant for decades or centuries and all of a sudden, it’s coming out. What’s not clear is, are we better at finding it? Or is it actually a new phenomenon?2
While there are many speculations floating around, it is not exactly clear who is responsible for these fake reviews. A statement made by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) on its website sheds some light on what may be happening:
Investigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses. Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious.5
The statement goes onto further say that:
We are unclear how far authors of the submitted manuscripts are aware that the reviewer names and email addresses provided by these agencies are fraudulent.5
As Oransky puts it:
The question here is who knew what, when? You have to be thinking about the steroid defense … like the baseball players who say, ‘Well, I don’t know. The trainer told me this was a totally legitimate enhancer,’ but actually the trainer was putting something illegal in it. The question is, did the player actually know?2
This latest outbreak of fake peer reviews raises a question on whether these incidences are reflective of a bigger problem within the academic sphere.3 The “publish or perish” tradition has been around for a long time in academic circles and many universities aim to increase their prestige by exerting pressure on their researchers to publish more papers to enhance the academic institution’s reputation and to attract funding.6 Professional ranks, salary and the job title of those in academia largely depend on the number of papers they publish and whether their studies are published in reputable journals.3 This leads to increases in the number of submissions, which in turn puts cost pressures on journals, thus increasing their subscription fees.6
University libraries are unable to afford these fees, which results in the need for external funding that can only be secured through greater university prestige.6 It is a vicious cycle that has many grave consequences and gives incentive for professional misconduct and compromise of the peer review process. Although some publishers and COPE have put forth recommendations for stricter publishing guidelines,2 if inherent in academia’s reward system are left unaddressed, the public may well lose trust in the integrity and value of peer reviewed studies published in the scientific and medical literature.
1 Romano A. Academic Journals are Facing A Battle to Weed Out Fake Peer Reviews. The Daily Dot Aug. 21, 2015.
2 Kaplan S. Major Publisher Retracts 64 Scientific Papers in Fake Peer Review Outbreak. The Washington Post Aug. 18, 2015.
3 Sonmez F. Fake Peer Review Scandal Shines Spotlight on China. The Wall Street Journal China Real Time Aug. 25, 2015.
4 Retraction Watch. 64 More Papers Retracted For Fake Reviews, This Time From Springer Journals. Retraction Watch.
5 Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE Statement on Inappropriate Manipulation of Peer Review Processes. COPE.
6 Cerejo C. Navigating Through The Pressure To Publish. Edit Age Insights. Nov. 1, 2013.