There have been big issues of fabrication circulating in publication ethics this month which highlight how publication ethics violations can be enabled by new technology and also how rapidly these issues can rise and then fall in the media – but may have longstanding consequences that mean we should not turn away so quickly.
The two substantial issues to challenge the integrity of publishing have come in the form of reviewer fraud and journal fraud. The reviewer fraud, that was perpetrated through the manipulation of online submission systems, and that was discovered by BioMed Central in 2014, led to 43 retractions, and has also led to other publishers examining their databases. It is likely that fallout will continue for many months and other retractions will follow. While we know reviewer fabrication is not new – it came to light in isolated cases that came to the COPE forum in 2012 – as more examples come to light of these issues being systematic, the need for careful and concerted action, as exhibited by BioMed Central, becomes more and more necessary.
But fabrication on a large scale does not stop at reviewers. What is now coming to light is the wholesale takeover of journals. A Chinese newspaper has reported this well, telling the story of how a review of the Ei index, owned by Elsevier, showed that one journal had suddenly increased the number of papers it was publishing dramatically and improbably, publishing many single author papers, which was unusual in itself, but moreover which were well outside the stated scope. Ei noted that it would delist the journal, but that action itself prompted the journal to publish a further large number of papers in an attempt presumably to get in before the ban.
What drives both of these deceptions is the incentive structure that requires desperate authors to chase publication in journals that will give them sufficient credit. The newer twist here, however, is the fact that it is no longer authors acting alone, but apparently a whole new industry has sprung up to serve these authors.
BioMed Central and Ei are to be commended by acting promptly but taking action on specific papers or journals won’t solve the problem. We have discussed before that incentives will drive behaviour for good or bad and that is seen everywhere – from the UK, as noted by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to China, which seems to be the current epicentre of fake journals and fake reviewers.
But another fake also made the headlines recently – a journalistic “sting”. This sting – well documented by Hilda Bastian on her blog – was an actual study on chocolate and weight loss done by a journalist, but which was apparently designed to come up with incredible results that would then be fed to credulous journals, and then hyped even further to newspapers. I don’t know of any journal or editor who finds it at all surprising that this story was picked up – chocolates always makes headlines. Nor is it new that the journalist was able to find a journal to publish this paper. We know there are journals willing to make a quick buck from desperate authors. However, publishing organisations, including COPE, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), have been working consistently to identify reputable journals, including developing more rigorous membership application processes and joint principals of transparency that we have collaborated on in 2014, and which have just been revised and updated.
So what can we conclude from this story, given that we know there are fraudulent journals out there, and we know that there are journalists willing to bend the rules of publishing to make a point? We can certainly conclude that the journalist by his own admission colluded in a study which deceived its participants in a way that most ethical review boards would find profoundly troubling (apparently it did not have ethical review), wrote it up in a deliberately misleading way, and subsequently misrepresented it to journalists.
What is then the real story here? I’d argue that it is this. We know that doing publishing consistently well is hard. What’s really troubling is the many people who will leap on this as an example of all being unwell in publishing, then immediately move on. There are big, serious – and fascinating – debates to be had on the future of publishing: where does peer review fit in and should it be open or closed; what’s the best format and most complete way to report studies; how should we ensure authors get attribution for the work they do; how do we build an incentive structure that doesn’t penalise good behaviour; and when it does go wrong, how do we correct the record.
It’s always fun to poke holes in a system; it would be great if we could channel some of that energy into really helping with building robust publishing systems that will support all the fascinating changes in publishing that are on the horizon.