In a massive cleanup, 107 articles have just been retracted from the open-access cancer research journal Tumor Biology.
“After a thorough investigation we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised,” writes editor-in-chief Torgny Stigbrand in the retraction notice.
Peer review is one of the golden standards that help sort the wheat from pseudoscientific babbling, making the process an integral part of academic publishing.
But there is massive publishing pressure in the scientific community, and with about 2.5 million papers published each year, some of those inevitably end up cutting corners. In this case, the transgression was what’s known as ‘fake peer review’.
Scientists are often asked to provide recommendations for potential reviewers of their work. While that sounds like an obvious invitation to cheat, it actually makes sense when the work is really specific and few others do similar research.
But it’s easy to game the system by providing a fake reviewer email address, impersonating an actual researcher and sending the journal a super-positive review in their name.
“The articles were submitted with reviewer suggestions, which had real researcher names but fabricated email addresses,” Springer representative Peter Butler told Yan Jie at Sixth Tone.
It’s a pretty massive lot of retractions all at once, but a few of the big academic publishers have been sweeping their portfolios for potential breaches, including fake peer review, plagiarism, data fabrication and more.
This time, the 107 papers were published between 2012 and 2016, and most were authored by Chinese researchers, although that doesn’t automatically reflect poorly on their scientific work.
Chinese scientists are known to rely on third-party agencies that provide language editing services, which give the papers a polish, increasing the chance of getting accepted. But it’s possible those companies have also done the authors a massive disservice.
“There is some evidence that so-called third-party language-editing services play a role in manipulating the reviewing process,” an unnamed Springer spokesperson told Cathleen O’Grady at Ars Technica.
While we don’t have details on whether any of the authors had a hand in contributing fake reviews, experts are willing to chalk at least some of the breaches up to those third-party companies, some of which are known to operate unethically.
“If the authors didn’t realise that this is what the editing company was doing, then I feel the authors should have a fair chance,” Elizabeth Wager, editor of the journal Research Integrity & Peer Review, told Ars Technica.
“There’s probably nothing wrong with the research; it just hasn’t been peer reviewed.”
China is one of the biggest scientific contributors in the world, producing more than 300,000 papers every year. With strides in nuclear fusion and revolutionary CRISPR experiments, Chinese researchers are major players in the international research scene.
But any large industry gets its share of scandals. For example, just last year news broke that 80 percent of data in Chinese clinical trials had been fabricated.
As for Tumor Biology, the journal actually moved from Springer to SAGE late last year, and the new publisher was made aware of the investigation into potential peer review fraud. The journal is run by the International Society of Oncology and BioMarkers.
“The society were open about the past instances of peer review fraud, and as part of the relaunch they wanted to address the underlying reasons,” a SAGE spokesperson told Alison McCook at Retraction Watch.
“As part of their transition to a new publisher, the Tumor Biology editorial team have already introduced new robust peer review practices expected from all SAGE journals.”