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Paper mills in the news

The phenomenon of organised paper mills has been drawing greater attention over recent years across the academic publishing community, with improving detection tools revealing the extensive scale of these operations and the implications this has on the integrity of the research literature. With so much activity happening around the issue, we summarise some of the more recent articles and events which have highlighted individual cases, and offer insight and guidance in tackling the problem.

First, we start with the joint COPE and STM  Paper mills research report, published in June 2022, in collaboration with Maverick Publishing Services. The report uses data from publishers as well as interviews with key staff members, research investigators, and Retraction Watch to understand the scale of the problem. The report provides some definitions and characterising behaviours, considers what motivates authors to use them, and offers some recommended actions.

In July, Retraction Watch highlighted the expressions of concern published by Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CCDC) in relation to 992 structures in its database which they discovered were linked to articles identified as products of a paper mill. Another Retraction Watch article from February interviewed Adam Day, a data scientist at SAGE Publishing, about his preprint Exploratory analysis of text duplication in peer-review reveals peer-review fraud and paper mills, and details of the methods used in the investigation, including how his team uncovered the network of milled papers through suspicious patterns in peer reviews.

In April, the IOS Press 35th Anniversary presentations included a talk from Bernhard Sabel, professor at the Otto-von-Guericke-University of Magdeburg, on the topic Fake Publications from Paper Mills: A Global Threat to the Permanent Record.  Sabel’s presentation mentions the openly advertised services aimed at students and low ranking institutions on various parts of the internet, and the four key stages of paper mill strategy, including: assistance with scientific consulting; adding project design; data collection, analysis and ghostwriting; ghostwriting companies which provide falsified data; and paper trading companies, which organise the sale of papers.

Professor Sabel was also one of the organisers of a symposium held in June, organised in collaboration with Felix Schönbrodt (LMU Munich) and supported by the LMU Open Science Center and the Deutscher Hochschulverband. Four presentations at the symposium included “Fake science publications by paper-mills: pollution of the permanent scientific record by Bernhard Sabel, "Radical steps to improve the quality of the preclinical research literature" by Jennifer Byrne (Director of Biobanking, NSW Health Pathology, Univ. Sydney), “Scientific fraud: whose problem is it?" by Dorothy Bishop (Prof. of Developmental Neuropsychology, Univ. Oxford), and “The publishers´ perspective of fraud & fake in scientific publishing” by Chris Graf (Research Integrity Director, Springer/Nature). The collection of videos and presentations are available on the Open Science Workshop Materials of the LMU Open Science Center.

In March, 2022 a preprint by Anna Abalkina revealed an extensive series of 434 publications originating from Russia-based paper mill, International Publisher LLC. The study estimated the total financial value of authorship slots offered by the publisher in the three years between 2019-2021 at $6.5 million, raising questions about the potential amount of legitimate research funding spent on just this one mill.

The problem of paper mills, and the potential impact on funding and policy is so great that, in July this year, a US congressional hearing was held, chaired by Bill Foster of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, titled Paper Mills and Research Misconduct: Facing the Challenges of Scientific Publishing. Discussing the current and future challenges in securing scientific literature from fraud, Chris Graf and Jennifer Byrne contributed to the hearing, alongside Dr. Brandon Stell, Neuroscientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and President and Co-Founder of The PubPeer Foundation. During the session, Chris recommended that a broad coalition could be created, between those who are able to act to make change happen, particularly with the awarding and application of funds, and the creation of policy that could better guard against threats to integrity of global research from this phenomenon. 

It is not just European and US organisations that are making arrangements to address this issue of paper mills. A news item on the Editage blog in January reported on the work of Chinese authorities in combating fraudulent research. The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China (NHC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), acted on the results of investigations and publicised violations and penalties of over 20 researchers who bought and sold papers through paper mills.

These stories form part of a huge ongoing effort across the academic publishing industry to develop better understanding of the activities of paper mills, the industry of fraudulent research manufacturing, and the implications it has for research publishing. We expect to continue adding new updates to COPE guidance and forum cases in future, as this topic remains an ongoing major concern affecting many aspects of publishing activity. We continue to work on the recommendations in the joint COPE and STM Paper mills research report. Editors, join us for a webinar in September when invited speakers will share their experience on how to manage paper mills.

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