If you’ve ever taken a science class or read any academic publication, you’re probably aware of the peer review process.
Submitted articles undergo the scrutiny of fellow experts in the relevant field to determine their merits for publication — or lack thereof, in some cases.
The process does have its occasional glitches. A major journal publisher in the United Kingdom (U.K.) has announced that it will be retracting 43 articles after determining that the submitted peer reviews were falsified. The publisher, BioMed Central, operates 277 different journals, which run the gamut of the science, medicine and technology fields. This past November they initially discovered that reviewers for a limited number of articles had been completely made-up in order to assure a complimentary assessment. The results of a prolonged investigation concluded at the end of March indicate that the issue was larger in scope than initially realized.
While 43 articles may not independently indicate an overwhelmingly problematic situation in the larger scheme of academic publishing, there were far more articles with similarly fabricated reviewers that never made it to final publication due to being rejected along the way. The case also represents the latest issue in a debate about publication ethics among academics who are revisiting the issues of peer review and publication pressure as these incidents emerge.
Director of Outreach and Research Support at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics Alan Regenberg says that this particular incident is not cause for great concern or surprise.
“I think the fact that we know about the papers, and they’re being retracted shows that something’s working in the system,” Regenberg said. “So, while the papers were published, at least there’s a mechanism, the way scientists approach literature, that does ferret out at least some problematic papers that get published.”
BioMed Central, which has a pretty standard review policy listed on their website, was initially tipped off by strange email addresses listed for some of their reviewers who also appeared to be writing across several fields — this is unusual since reviewers do not typically have expertise in many of the highly specific subject matters covered in these journals.
Regenberg says that this constraint is actually a problem for many journals that have a hard time finding appropriate reviewers, and the article quality can suffer as a result.
In this case though, many of the articles in question had relevant professionals and their contact information listed. However, when these scholars were contacted, they said they had never submitted anything.
Many of the articles with faulty reviews came from China-based authors who had used paid services that help writers who do not speak English with translation problems and submission overseas, sometimes even guaranteeing it for a fee. BioMed Central is still pinning down whether these authors were aware of the fictitious methods used to get their articles published or even contributed themselves.
In a statement from the Committee on Publication Ethics, of which BioMed Central is a member, the organization wrote that “given the seriousness and potential scale of the investigation findings, we believe that the scientific integrity of manuscripts submitted via these agencies is significantly undermined.”
As a result of the investigation, authors at BioMed Central publications can no longer suggest reviewers for their pieces in the submission system, though editors may still ask them for recommendations.
For Regenberg though, this type of procedure still causes a conflict of interest. By having authors so closely involved in the selection process, he said, it is like the “fox guarding the henhouse.”
In terms of quality control in publications and incidents of retraction, Regenberg hinted that scientists tend to be a bit apathetic.
“I think people are concerned about it, but there’s no consensus around the solution,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody’s in a panic about it.”
For his part, Regenberg does not think there is any one quick fix for the toils of the peer review process and says people should not presume an immediate change is possible.
Based on a report released last December by the London-based Nuffield Council of Bioethics, there is also a widespread sentiment that the trend of emphasizing quantity of publications rather than quality as a marker of success is damaging to scientists and their work.
Targeting these kinds of incentives may be relevant to preventing further falsification happening during the journal publication stages.