Compromised peer review system in published papers
Case text (Anonymised)
On noticing a high volume of submissions from corresponding author A, editor X flagged up concerns with the preferred reviewers being suggested and their comments. Author A had in most cases suggested the same preferred reviewers for each submission, preferred reviewer accounts had non-attributable email addresses, comments were being returned very quickly (within 24 hours) and were often brief and positive, largely restricted to grammatical changes. All preferred reviewers favoured immediate acceptance or acceptance subject to minor revisions.
Author A was asked to provide further information on the preferred reviewers and admitted that these were either dummy accounts or associates of author A. The dummy accounts had email accounts accessible by author A and/or author A’s students or collaborators. Author A asked the preferred reviewers (or the people behind the accounts) to submit favourable reviews of the papers and turn them around quickly or author A submitted the reviews via the dummy account. Author A admitted employing this system for a number of papers, but not every paper, although we found similar patterns of peer review activity for these also. Author A states that the papers’ co-authors were not aware of this activity.
Author A has agreed to retract published papers for which they admit to influencing the peer review process and we are planning retraction notices for these. We are now seeking advice as to what to do about the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. We suspect the peer review of these other articles was compromised through use of preferred reviewers suggested by author A, but we have no evidence that these preferred reviewers used dummy accounts or that the article content is flawed. We are therefore considering issuing an expression of concern for these papers.
We have attempted to make contact with all co-authors to explain the problem and seek their approval for the chosen course of action. Only three co-authors have responded, two supporting our decision, and one (whose paper we planned to issue an expression of concern for) replied that it was unfair on the co-authors without any concrete evidence. Author A’s institution has been contacted but we have received no response.
We respectfully ask COPE to provide advice on managing those papers author A has not agreed to retract and, in particular, the case where a co-author disagrees with our intention to issue an expression of concern
The Forum agreed that there are many issues involved here, not least a serious form of misconduct which may even be criminal, as the author was impersonating the reviewers and committing fraud by using colleagues as false reviewers and, possibly impersonating other reviewers. In addition, as the author has admitted fraud, can the editor trust the validity of any of the papers?
The advice was to contact the author’s institution and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The editor should also contact the reviewers who were the associates of the author who provided favourable reviews and contact their institutions.
The Forum advised re-reviewing the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. If the journal wishes to stand by these papers, then it is essential that all of the papers are re-reviewed. In the meantime, an expression of concern should be issued for all of these papers. One suggestion was to inform the author of the course of action that the journal is going to undertake and see if he wishes to retract all of these papers.
The Forum noted that the journal should take some responsibility for failure of their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer.
The journal has now published (or is in the process of publishing) retraction notices for all of the papers that the corresponding author agreed to retract. The journal has taken the suggestion from the Forum of ‘re-doing’ the peer review process for the other papers seriously and are planning on doing this
The institution contacted us and wants to discuss the details of what we found out as they investigate the author.
There are still two outstanding issues: (1) the other non-retracted papers; and (2) the decision of the author’s institution on what action they will take.