Publication scams

by Dr. Afroz Ahmad Shah

The quality and publication process of any type of article relies primarily on the reviews of reviewers and editors. A good review always helps in improving the quality of a publication.

However, if reviews are in any way compromised, then serious flaws in a publication can go unchecked and result in a spurious and low standard publication.

A paper published in Nature in 2014 entitled ‘Publishing: The peer-review scam’ argues that in the past two years, a number of journals have been asked to withdraw more than 110 papers in at least six instances of peer-review rigging.

This was due to researchers abusing the publication process, primarily at the review stage, where they had either self-reviewed their own papers or managed to get it done through their dear-peers. These papers were published in journals like Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa.

Similarly, a publication racket was unearthed during a five-month long research exercise conducted by Science, where it was discovered that a booming academic black market is actively working to tarnish the academic and research integrity of China. This unethical business has a number of murky agencies, fraudulent scientists and editors on board with a dubious rule where they ‘pay to publish’.

Thus, they work to guarantee a publication for an authorship fee ranging from USD1,600 to USD26,300 in journals indexed by Thomson Reuters’ Science Citation Index (SCI), Thomson Reuters’ Social Sciences Citation Index and Elsevier’s Engineering Index.

These two well-known cases have established that unethical shortcuts in publishing of papers do occur in an organised manner and at a larger scale than previously suspected.

These findings are very challenging for academic and research reliability and adds a new dimension to the already existing complexity of a number of predatory publishers who have a range of fraudulent journals and work just to make money from their customers.

These publishers are comprehensively catalogued by Jeffrey Beal, a Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, United States, who keeps a watch on them on his blog

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly complex to keep a track on these duplicitous academic and research publishers and agents because they are building new and innovative webs to fool people.

The falsification of academic veracity is not new. Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist, made newspaper headlines around the world when he was found guilty of faking or manipulating data in dozens of publications, some of which were published in good journals.

There was also the equally shocking case of once-notable South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk when it was discovered that nearly all of his well-received work was duplicitous.

Likewise, another major academic fraud was unearthed when notable Harvard evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser was found guilty of fabricating some of his publications.

Therefore, immoral shortcuts in research are known to exist. However, the motivation to take such extreme steps is not clearly established.

There could be various reasons for such motives. For example, in China, unhealthy practices are primarily driven by lack of research grants, wherein people are forced to take unethical shortcuts to win available competitive grants.

Since merit-driven promotions in most institutes of higher learning are measured by the number of publications in good journals, it can easily entice scientists and potentially young researchers to take devious shortcuts. Similarly, a talent-based system of grading in academia or research can motivate scientists to deceitfully inflate their findings.

However, there are many examples where motivation is primarily driven by greed and a thirst to wrongly acquire wealth while in power. This is best exemplified by a recent academic fraud that surfaced in the Kashmir Valley, where a former chairman of the Board of Professional Entrance Examinations (BOPEE) Mushtaq Ahmad Peer was found guilty of involvement in a multi-million rupees Common Entrance Test (CET) scam in 2012.

Mushtaq and his accomplices sold the highly competitive medical examination entrance papers to a number of students for a hefty amount. He was appointed Chairman of BOPEE by the state Cabinet on 28 February 2009 and prior to that, he was the head of Department of Computer Sciences, University of Kashmir.

The reasons for illicit behaviour are many and it seems logical to suggest that greed is the major driver, followed by other causes as mentioned above. This equally suggests that the required remedies will also vary. Thus, there is a need to rethink publication-driven promotions, grants and annual appraisals.

Also, there is a need to teach ethical philosophy to researchers and keep track of their work through individual institutions and departments. It would be ideal to help or assist those researchers who are unable to win grants or publish good papers. Isolating such people could force them to do the extremes, which is dangerous for the entire research community.

Dr. Afroz Ahmad Shah is a former senior lecturer in the Applied Geology Department in Faculty of Engineering and Science, Curtin Sarawak. The article was previously published in Current Science, Vol. 106, No. 5.