The news Tumor Biology retracts 107 research papers after discovering that the authors falsified the peer review process. This isn’t the magazine’s first rodeo. At the end of last year, 58 papers were withdrawn from seven different journals – 25 came from them Tumor Biology for the same reason.
It is possible to spoof peer review, as authors are often asked to suggest potential reviewers for their own papers. This is done because research topics are often blindingly niche; a researcher working in a sub-subfield may know better than the journal editor who is best placed to review the work.
But some magazines go further and ask or allow authors to provide the contact information of these potential reviewers. If the editor is unaware of the possibility of a scam, they gleefully send the review requests to bogus email addresses, often using the names of real researchers. And on the other side of the fake email address is someone who is participating and happy to send a friendly review.
Fake peer reviewers “often know what a review looks like and know enough to make it plausible,” says Elizabeth Wager, editor of the magazine Scientific Integrity & Peer Review. But they’re not always good at faking less obvious quirks of academia: “When many of the fake peer reviews first appeared, one of the reasons editors noticed them was because the reviewers responded in a timely manner. Wager told Ars. Reviewers should almost always be hounded, so “this was the red flag. And in a few cases, both reviews appeared within a few minutes of each other.
It is not always the authors who provide the reviews. “There is evidence that so-called third-party language editing services play a role in manipulating the review process,” said a spokesperson for Springer, the company that published. Tumor Biology until this year. Scientists working in a language other than English may use editing services to polish their papers before sending them to a journal, and some of these services can be unethical and predatory, Wager says.
It may be naive, she says, but “if the authors don’t realize that this is what the editors were doing, then I think the authors should be given a fair chance. There’s probably nothing wrong with the research; it’s just not peer-reviewed.” But of course it is difficult to judge whether the authors knew about it. “It’s unclear if the authors of the manuscripts were aware that the agencies were suggesting made-up reviewer names/email addresses,” the Springer spokesperson told Ars.
This most recent avalanche of bogus reviewed papers was discovered due to additional screening at the journal. According to an official statement from Springer, “the decision was made to screen new papers before they are released for production.” The additional screening turned up the names of bogus reviewers that had not previously been discovered, and “in order to clean up our scientific data, we will now begin retracting these affected articles … Springer will continue to proactively investigate these issues.”
It is best for editors not to rely on authors’ contact information, but to look for the right academic email addresses themselves, says Wager. Some journals include this in their editorial guidelines and other institutions recommend it as best practice. But there are other ways to play the system.
Tumor Biology changed ownership in January and the new publisher, SAGE, was aware of the problems when they took over. “[Springer] were open about the past cases of peer review fraud, and as part of the relaunch they wanted to address the underlying reasons,” a SAGE spokesperson told Retraction Watch. “The Tumor Biology editorial team has already introduced new robust peer review practices expected of all SAGE journals.” However, this doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any more retractions for the magazine, as studies like this recent one can uncover more dirt from the past.