Peer review – loopholes, hackers and scams

Late last year, an editorial in the prestigious journal Nature, ‘The peer-review scam’, highlighted one of the latest issues affecting the peer-review process.1

Research papers are usually retracted to correct the scientific literature (rising from approximately 40 papers retracted in 2001 to 400 in 2010), and it is reportedly mostly due to errors, sloppiness or misconduct. The Nature editorial describes cases that involved peer-review fraud.

In one example, an author from South Korea was found to have written many of the reviews himself.1 His fraudulent behaviour was noticed because the reviews were mostly being completed within 24 hours, which is generally unheard of. As with the AVJ, Nature invites authors to suggest any potential reviewers – that author suggested names with false e-mail addresses, all of which went to him or his colleagues. A total of 28 papers were retracted.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE; the organisation that produces the guidelines that form the basis for maintaining ethical peer review ethics) has also reported “systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers”.2 Although COPE stresses that there are a number of well-established, reputable agencies that offer manuscript-preparation services to authors, they have found a number of third party agencies that sell authorship of pre-written manuscripts, provide fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supply reviews from these fabricated addresses. According to COPE, publishers are examining their own databases for any fabricated reviewer accounts and contact details, although it is hard to imagine that the publishers will be checking every account. Any articles that they find to have been published solely on the basis of fabricated reviews will be retracted and the authors and institutions involved will be contacted.

The Nature editorial was written by a staff writer and two co-founders of the blog ‘Retraction Watch’, which was started in 2010. The aim of the blog is to tell the stories behind the retraction notices, and these stories give a glimpse into how good science is at correcting itself. With over 600,000 page views per month, and a new grant of $400,000 to expand and to build a retraction database, the scale has amazed the bloggers.3 It’s definitely worth checking out Retraction Watch, if not for the volume of retractions, then for headlines like “A ewe-turn: Researchers lose sleep, and paper, over miscounted sheep”.

This may all seem rather esoteric, but can have widespread and unforeseen implications. Another example of peer review fraud was also discovered after a 14-month investigation by SAGE Publications.1  A total of 130 email accounts were flagged as suspicious, mainly because they were generic-looking Gmail accounts, and 60 articles were retracted in this ‘citation ring’ from Taiwan. It wasn’t just the articles that suffered – it led to the resignation of the main author, as well as the Editor in Chief of the journal, and Taiwan’s education Minister. The latter had apparently been listed as co-author on five of the papers, which he claimed occurred without his knowledge.

A recent and high-profile case, also written up on Retraction Watch involved two stem cell papers from Japan and Boston, which were retracted because of “inexplicable discrepancies” that “impair the credibility of the study as a whole”. This lead to the tragic suicide of the co-author and the fallout is continuing.4

At the AVJ, we do use reviewers suggested by authors, mainly because it is often difficult for us to find available reviewers otherwise. However, if the author-recommended review is either glowing or miniscule, another review is organised. In our close-knit Australian veterinary community, invited reviewers are likely to be at least as critical of the paper as any other. We have procedures in place to prevent this type of reviewer fraud, including only using one of the preferred reviewers, and trying to check for conflict of interest (e.g. if they are family members, come from the same department or have been co-authors in the past).

These checks and balances are not too difficult to do within the Australian community, but are virtually impossible to apply to overseas authors.

I sincerely hope that we don’t need to learn firsthand about things like reviewer fraud, password loopholes, hackers and identity theft at the AVJ.

The AVJ is hosting the next meeting of the International Veterinary Editor’s meeting at the end of Pan Pac in Brisbane in May 2015 and this is one of the likely topics for discussion.

Two examples of Retraction Watch posts:

“If it looks like a duck flu study, and quacks like a duck flu study, and it’s word-for-word the same as a duck flu study... ”

“Veterinary journal pulls semen paper published (you guessed it) prematurely.”

Anne Jackson
Editor in Chief


  1. Ferguson C, Marcus A, Oransky I. Publishing: the peer-review scam. Nature 2014;515:480–482.
  2. COPE statement on inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes. Committee on Publication Ethics.
  3. Green A-M. Telling the story behind the retraction: a Q&A with Ivan Oransky.
  4. STAP stem cell co-author commits suicide.

This article appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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