Fake reviews of scientific articles discovered

Fake reviews of scientific articles discovered

Some journals check all reviews for authenticity, others do not

29-01-2024 · Background

Before publication in journals, researchers review each other’s articles. This so-called peer review is one of the cornerstones of science, but it is used to commit fraud in several ways. Recently, 85 fake reviews were discovered in 23 journals.

The fake reviews didn’t surface after a large-scale investigation, but only after a professor at the University of Sevilla had suspicions, took a closer look at journals and sounded the alarm bell in a blog. "It is merely a blog," says Lex Bouter, retired professor of Methodology and Integrity at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. But the abuse that the professor exposes, is convincing,” says Bouter, who shared the case on social media.

But first, what is peer review? It is customary for scientists in the same field to assess each other’s articles before publication in a journal. Two or three (often anonymous) reviewers read the manuscript and write a review, and give advice to either publish or not. In the case of a go-ahead, the author adapts the text on the basis of the tips for improvements. After which, publication follows in the journal. 

For journals, who set up the peer reviews, it is not easy to find reviewers. It takes time and many scientists would prefer to work on their own research than assessing other people’s articles. That is why journals often ask the author to come up with suitable candidates.

Bouter: "That may sound strange, but researchers know their own field of specialisation best. They also know who is knowledgeable in their subject field. At the same time, a lot can go wrong."

Empty suggestions

It is true that some authors give the names of colleagues – sometimes heavyweights – but they don’t always add their real e-mail addresses, but made-up ones. The review request from the journal never reaches the colleague, but appears in the author’s inbox. Who subsequently writes a glowing assessment of his own work.

It also happens that researchers write fake reviews in which they emphatically advise the author to include in the manuscript references to articles written by the reviewer. That appears to be the case in the abuse exposed by the Spanish professor Angeles Oviedo-Garcia. She discovered a total of 85 articles in which a group of ten scientists (from five universities) reviewed manuscripts in order to inflate the number of references to their own works. The more references to your publications, the greater your prestige as a scientist.

The reviews themselves carried little weight and were filled with standard texts, in which reviewers (and possibly also ChatGPT) make empty suggestions about paragraphs being too long or too detailed. Bouter: "It reminds me of something we have known for quite some time: citation cartels. Here too, scientists agreed to refer to each other’s articles. Except that this was not always accompanied by fake reviews." 

However, fake reviews are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2020, six-hundred articles were withdrawn because the reviews had been invented. This appeared from data from the Retraction Watch Database.

Credits for reviews

Some journals check all reviews (and reviewers) for authenticity, others do not, says Bouter. “What none of them do, as far as I know, is run the reviews through a plagiarism scanner, as they often do with scientists’ manuscripts. In that case, you would fish the fake reviews out in no time, because a lot of text that has been used before is repeated.” 

Something that would also make a difference, says the retired professor, is if scientists were given points or academic credits for reviewing manuscripts. “If scientists take their job as reviewers more seriously because of this, the cheaters will have less opportunity.”

Paid per publication

Mark Spigt, researcher at GP Medicine, finds the cheating by the group of ten scientists a peculiar case. Together with his colleague Ilja Arts, Spigt wrote a handbook about peer reviewing and wonders what interest the ten academics had in writing fake reviews. 

“It may generate two or three extra references for one’s own work, but that is in stark contrast to the risks they are running, especially as they were writing fake reviews under their own names. They are mainly from Asian countries, maybe there is more pressure there to publish than here in the West.”

There are also countries where matters are organised differently, says Bouter. “There are, for example, universities where researchers are paid per publication.”

Cloud of mistrust

The fake reviews by the ‘’ten" were detected in 23 different journals, all managed by MDPI. Bouter: “That is a gigantic publishing company that manages a considerable part of the scientific journals market. Many researchers view MDPI as one of the so-called predatory publishers, publishers that regard a high turnover more important than providing quality. Although this does not mean that all publications by MDPI are no good, it does mean that their quality control has occasional shortcomings.”

Very worrying, says Spigt, this trend of doubtful journals and fake reviews. “Reviewing constitutes the backbone of science. Twenty years ago, the scientific publication system was still reliable, but now there is a cloud of mistrust hanging over it. Every scientific article has to be checked for reliability these days. It is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between real and fake.” 

Photo: Pixabay (ahmadardity)

Categories: Science
Tags: fake reviews, fraud, spigt, bouter,instagram

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