Potential “paper mills” and what to do about them – a publisher’s perspective
A recent COPE forum discussion focused on the significant problem of “paper mills”. This term describes the process by which manufactured manuscripts are submitted to a journal for a fee on behalf of researchers with the purpose of providing an easy publication for them, or to offer authorship for sale. The concerns with these submissions include faked or manipulated data/images, the use of stock images, substantial authorship changes, and plagiarism, which is not detected because it comes from a translated version of another article.
There are many reasons why this phenomenon poses a challenge for publishers. Paper mills are often detected after a pattern of submission behaviour across several submissions and journals becomes apparent. There is wide variation in “signs” for paper mill activity which can be difficult to distinguish from honest and legitimate author behaviours. Even original data can be convincingly fabricated and must be independently verified, a challenge in itself for a busy journal with busy peer reviewers and editors, who are usually not in a position to spot such problems.
Typically, when concerns arise, we will contact the listed authors for an explanation, or contact the institution to request assistance with an investigation. However, the authors of these submissions often use non-institutional email addresses, which are difficult to verify. This then raises the concern that even when we do receive a response to our queries, we can’t be assured we’re actually communicating with the authors. In addition, when we have reached out to the institutions (here it’s often not clear who to contact), we may not receive a response.
In situations where we do receive a response to our requests to share the original data, we receive large numbers of files, often not clearly labelled, which sometimes require specialist laboratory software to open. Managing this at scale is a significant challenge, and in many cases the trends only emerge when comparing with other potential paper mill submissions or published articles. By this time, many paper mill submissions might have been published, and at that stage we are alerted to the problem by “data sleuths” such as Elisabeth Bik, who skilfully detect suspicious patterns.
Although, once detected we do take steps to investigate and correct the scholarly records (eg, retraction or expression of concern), we need to ensure we prevent these papers being published in the first place. Paper mills are quick to adapt to publisher and journal requests and investigation processes, and continue to move the goalposts in order to manipulate the publishing process. So, what can publishers do?
Firstly, publishers need to take collective action to put in place appropriate checks and balances, and create cross-publisher policies. In this regard, there’s an important opportunity here for COPE to continue to work with publishers to create guidance and adapt flowcharts to assist in detecting potential manuscripts from paper mills early in the process. This in turn will increase awareness and training amongst journal editors, editorial staff, and publishers so that additional requirements and enhanced checks at the submission stage can be adopted more widely (e.g., mandatory data sharing policies, especially for the types of data which can be more easily faked/manipulated).
The need for technology to help address these issues is clear, and so publishers are collaborating with developers of such programmes (e.g., with institutions, and organisations such as Proofig and a STM-STEC working group on image alterations). There are also conferences dedicated to technical solutions like those that are required where innovations can be shared (e.g., https://cri-conf.org /).
At the time of writing, the scale of this problem is mainly affecting biomedical journals, but there’s also evidence that other disciplines are being affected too. It’s important we continue to learn from each other, and collaborate on data sharing policies, technology and training, in order to collectively combat this manipulation of the publishing process.
Sabina Alam, Director of Publishing Ethics and Integrity, Taylor & Francis Group
Jigisha Patel, Independent Research Integrity Consultant
Christna Chap, Head of Editorial Development, Karger Publishers
Sarah Robbie, Head of Research Integrity & Ethics, Taylor & Francis Group
Ulf Scheffler, Deputy Editor, Wiley
Elizabeth Moylan, Publisher (Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics), Wiley
Systematic manipulation of the publishing process via “paper mills” COPE Forum discussion
Systematic manipulation of the publication process, COPE guidance