A leading scientific publisher has retracted 64 articles in 10 journals, after an internal investigation discovered fabricated peer-review reports linked to the articles’ publication.
Berlin-based Springer announced the retractions in an 18 August statement. In May, Springer merged with parts of Macmillan Science and Education — which publishes Nature — to form the new company Springer Nature.
The cull comes after similar discoveries of ‘fake peer review’ by several other major publishers, including London-based BioMed Central, an arm of Springer, which began retracting 43 articles in March citing "reviews from fabricated reviewers". The practice can occur when researchers submitting a paper for publication suggest reviewers, but supply contact details for them that actually route requests for review back to the researchers themselves.
The Springer investigation began in November 2014 after a journal editor-in-chief noticed irregularities in contact details for peer reviewers. These included e-mail addresses that the editor they suspected were bogus but were accompanied by the names of real researchers, says William Curtis, executive vice-president for publishing, medicine and biomedicine at Springer. The investigation, which focused on articles for which authors had suggested their own reviewers, detected numerous fabricated peer-review reports. Affected authors and their institutions have been told about the investigation’s findings, says Curtis.
Springer declined to name the articles or journals involved. However, a search of the publisher’s website identified more than 40 retraction notices dated between 17 and 19 August 2015 for articles in 8 Springer journals.
Springer now plans to vet peer-reviewer suggestions more carefully, Curtis says. Its journals may in future request the supply of institutional e-mail addresses or Scopus author IDs for reviewers.
When BioMed Central uncovered its peer-review problem, senior editor for research integrity Elizabeth Moylan noted that some of the issues seemed to involve companies that charge scientists to edit their manuscripts and help them with journal submission. Curtis says that Springer has “limited evidence” to implicate such third parties in some of the cases it uncovered.
Some publishers, such as BioMed Central and San Francisco-based PLoS, have ended the practice of author-suggested reviewers in response to fake peer review. But Elizabeth Wager, a publication consultant and former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), says that “less drastic” measures, such as double-checking non-institutional e-mail addresses given for reviewers, would allow journals to hold on to the expertise that these reviewers often provide.
“The particular problem of fake review comes about when authors are allowed to suggest possible peer reviewers,” says Wager. “The system sounds good. The trouble is when people game the system and use it as a loophole.”
The involvement of third-party companies in bogus peer review is “more worrying”, Wager adds, because it could mean that the practice is more systemic and extends beyond a handful of rogue authors.
Virginia Barbour, the current chair of COPE, says that Springer has informed the committee about the investigation. “It is important publishers take rapid but careful action, as here,” she says.
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