W

hat do Henry Kissinger and Martin Scorsese have in common? Fun fact: Both evidently review scientific manuscripts for money.

OK, maybe that’s not quite true. In fact, it’s not at all true. But headshots of both men appear in the bios of two purported reviewers (one of which has a woman’s name, sorry, Martin!) for a company called EditPub that sells various scientific services, including peer reviews.

The EditPub site (which seemed on Thursday to be no longer up and running), is almost entirely in Chinese, but its homepage bills it as a “service center for scientific research.” Its existence came to light earlier this month after the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology retracted a 2015 article by a group from Dalian University in China. According to the journal, EditPub had “compromised” the peer review process in a way that the journal has so far refused to make public.

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The retraction is but the latest in some 300 similar instances of journals pulling articles because of hacked peer reviews.

The most frequent scheme involves pairing the names of legitimate scientists with fake email addresses in order to generate positive peer reviews about manuscripts and convince editors to accept the work. Here’s how: A scientist submits a paper to a journal, which in turn asks the author to provide the names and email addresses of a few potential reviewers. (If that strikes you as unusual, it isn’t; editors constantly need new reviewers who have different expertise, and who might not be quite as overworked.)

Edit Pub
Screen capture via EditPub

 

The vast majority of the time, the contacts are valid. But sometimes not — the author offers up real names, even of well-known individuals, but bogus email addresses that he or she controls. And the way that some editorial management software works, the editor doesn’t see the email address.

Scientists can do this on their own, but many third-party editing service companies like EditPub offer this kind of fakery among their suite of products.

Such ruses can occur only when journals allow authors to recommend potential reviewers — something many continue to do despite the abuses, particularly in small fields with fewer researchers qualified to give expert opinions. When it does succeed, a researcher gets to review his or her own paper, and, not surprisingly, make a recommendation to accept it, boosting his or her CV by bypassing a quality assurance step and letting a paper enter the scientific record that may not deserve to be there.

Last year, BioMed Central retracted 43 papers for fake reviews, some of which appeared to have been conducted by “third-party agencies,” the publisher said. In 2014, SAGE said that it had uncovered a peer review “ring,” orchestrated by Taiwanese scientist Peter Chen, which led to the retraction of 60 papers. The publisher subsequently retracted another 17 papers in a different reviewing scandal.

All of this means that the peer review process is being compromised. As we’ve written in this space, peer review is prone to many problems. However, when it works, it’s the best way of protecting the scientific literature from false information. Gaming it defeats that purpose. The situation is alarming enough that Adam Cohen, who edits the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, is planning to publish an editorial about the EditPub case and the larger problem of “organized crime against peer review.”

Kissinger the policymaker — not the reviewer — once said, “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other 10 percent a bad reputation.” In science, the equation might be flipped — but it’s no less concerning.

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