Fighting the problem of fraud in publishing
November 20, 2023
By Ann-Marie Roche
© istock.com/suwadee sangsriruang
To combat the growing number of fake papers being published, Elsevier’s publishing ethics and editorial teams employ an array of tools and procedures.
Persistent and widespread fraud is one of the biggest challenges of our time for publishers and researchers. As we detailed in our article “The cost of fraudulent research,” paper mills and other bad actors are a threat to research integrity. In response to this issue, Elsevier has significantly expanded the Research Integrity and Ethics team that is responsible for maintaining the integrity of research in the journals Elsevier publishes, growing it from two to more than 20 people in just a few years.
“Misconduct is so much more rife than it used to be,” says Dr Olivia Nippe(opens in new tab/window), a Senior Publishing Ethics Expert on the team. “The paper mill industry has boomed, and it looks as though these papers have been appearing and amassing since about 2017. So there are just more bad papers out there than there used to be.”
Guarding the weak points
There are certain types of fraud that are most likely to occur in publishing: These include the concealing of conflicts of interest, the inclusion of falsified research data, the citing of authors who were not actually involved in the research, falsifying images and plagiarism. Ethics teams must maintain awareness and know what to look out for.
“We have journals that work on single blind, double blind or open peer review that will inherently have different processes, and there are different checks that are going to apply across different fields,” says Dr Nippe. “If you’re working in clinical biology, you're going to be more attuned to looking out for differences in ethical approvals. If you're working in the biological sciences, you might be a little more on high alert for image duplication and manipulation issues, which is where we typically see those.”
Though the problem of fraud in research is pervasive, Elsevier works to address these challenges through procedures already in place and others that we are developing and refining.
Carrying out a thorough and responsible editorial review and peer review process across our 2,800 journals is at the heart of maintaining research integrity at Elsevier. We receive approximately 2.6 million submissions of research papers every year, and they are reviewed by our in-house editorial team in collaboration with 32,000 outside editors and over 1 million expert reviewers. Ultimately, about 600,000 of those articles end up being published, after having been carefully reviewed, indexed and certified.
The peer review process has long been the industry gold standard for producing trustworthy scientific research. However, we are also aware that standard processes of the past aren’t always enough anymore. To combat fraudulent research, more is required.
Working with authors and editors
Education, guidelines and the creation of a culture of research integrity can all help to keep fraud at bay and ensure that standards of publication are met. Much of that starts with the researcher (i.e., the author) and the editors and reviewers supporting the researcher’s work.
“It's really important to shift from a reactive stance to a proactive stance, to be able to identify issues pre-acceptance — that's key,” says Dr Daniel Stuckey(opens in new tab/window), also a Senior Publishing Ethics Expert on the team. Dr Stuckey emphasizes the importance of the ethics team working with authors, editors and reviewers to ensure they are knowledgeable about Elsevier’s policies and standards:
We are developing resources to be shared externally, and this is to help train researchers — early career researchers, for example — on best practice so they know the kinds of ethical pitfalls to avoid and our recommendations for being able to construct or formulate really clear, transparent and well-reported research that can then be submitted for publication.
A researcher can be doing incredible work in the lab or out in the field, yet may not be well-versed in how to write a research article. Elsevier offers its online Researcher Academy(opens in new tab/window) to support authors and editors with online lectures, interactive courses and other resources that cover key topics like design methodology, ethical article submissions, detecting image manipulation, plagiarism and more.
In addition, all Elsevier-published journals are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)(opens in new tab/window), a forum that provides a place for peer-reviewed journal editors to ask questions about publication ethics and integrity issues they are confronting.
Tools of the trade
At Elsevier, we use a variety of software tools during the publication process, particularly with the initial submission, to flag potential areas of concern. Dr Stuckey highlighted iThenticate(opens in new tab/window), which combs a massive database for evidence of text similarity between published papers. “That can be also really useful to identify suspected plagiarism,” he says.
“There is the duplicate submission check, which can look for duplicated submissions across different Elsevier journals,” he adds, “and there's also a paper mill detection tool that’s been developed in-house, and we're currently testing that out.”
These tools are meant to assist editors by alerting them to potential issues — they don’t tell you if a paper does or does not have a fraud problem. Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. But they can at least provide an investigative lead.
For instance, the Identity Confidence Check (ICC) is a critical tool developed by Elsevier’s Trust and Transparency team: Elsevier’s editors use it to assess the identity of an author when they first submit a paper for consideration. It takes various factors into consideration, Dr Nippe explains, giving an example:
It'll look at the [author’s] email domain. Is it related to an institution? Is it a domain that is associated with misconduct in the past? Is the author on the editorial board for that journal? Have they authored papers at that journal before? Have they been a reviewer? All things that might establish more confidence that they are the person they say they are, and that they do have expertise in the field.
Depending on how many of those flags are checked and how many pass muster, the author will get a green, amber or a red icon (or gray if there isn’t enough information available). “We have some resources that we’ve given to the editors so they can understand what those flags mean and interpret them accordingly,” says Dr Nippe, noting that even a red label doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a “bad actor“ who is trying to submit something fraudulent.
“It just means that maybe the editor should keep an eye open for any potential things that might be wrong with the paper,” she says. “Just be a little bit more cautious.”
In the worst-case scenario that a paper with faulty research gets past the review process, it’s vital to be able to identify and correct it as soon as possible. This will typically happen in response to new information supplied by an editor or reviewer. When that information is presented, Elsevier immediately launches a formal investigation.
Ultimately, based on the severity of the problem, there are steps Elsevier can take. In some instances where there was a relatively minor error that can be fixed, the article may be updated with a corrigendum (i.e., a correction) or an editorial note (if the authors do not agree with the text) explaining what changes were made. If there is an actual legal issue, it’s possible the paper could be removed entirely.
When there is an issue of fraud or an ethical breach, that usually leads to a retraction. This could be the result of the study being unreliable because of falsified data, a compromised review process, or various other causes. The paper will be formally retracted, including the placing of a large watermark and a link to the retraction notice explaining why the paper is not reliable.
Whichever of the available options is chosen, the final decision on how to appropriately correct the record always rests with the journal’s Editor-in-Chief.
In the case of retraction, just retracting the paper isn’t enough, however. Once that research has been released into the world, there is the risk that other researchers will unknowingly use or reference it, effectively promoting false information or data. That’s where the RetractoBot(opens in new tab/window) comes in. Utilizing Scopus citation data, the University of Oxford’s Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science(opens in new tab/window) runs RetractoBot as a service to alert researchers if they have cited a retracted paper. This is one important way of reducing new citations to articles that have been retracted.
“It's always keeping in mind that other people must have reliable data that they can go back to,” says Dr Nippe of the retraction process. “Ultimately, it's about preserving the scientific record.”
It’s important to be aware of the most vulnerable parts of the publishing process that can most easily be exploited. For instance, because many of the vetting and integrity checks are done when a paper is first submitted, it is easier to make “sneaky” changes during the review and revision processes when an author is submitting revised text, and a problematic change could more easily be overlooked by the editor or reviewers. This is also a period when an extra author being added could potentially go unnoticed.
With the increase in research, small editorial teams may be trying to handle large volumes of papers; meanwhile, external editors and reviewers may have heavy workloads they are handling in addition to their editorial and reviewing obligations. At the same time, both authors and reviewers are often pressured by the “publish or perish” mentality that sometimes drives unethical behavior in publishing. Beyond that, some authors, editors and reviewers are simply inexperienced and may inadvertently violate guidelines they are unaware of.
“We’re seeing that editors need more guidelines on how to detect paper mill style papers,” Dr Nippe says. “We're going to develop some resources around this to show people what we think is the right way is to handle those cases. And it's our responsibility to communicate those changes to our editors and make sure that we’re following those guidelines.”
AI — friend or foe?
Artificial intelligence presents both opportunities and challenges when it comes to ethics in publishing. AI can be a great help to researchers who need assistance in organizing their thoughts or clearly stating important information in the text of a paper. Also, AI has been used successfully by editors to detect duplicate images. But AI also has the potential to create false images. Meanwhile, catching completely new graphics or images generated by AI, perhaps based on fake research data, is a different challenge entirely.
“This is something that the publishing industry will have to look at, and there are possible solutions,” Dr Stuckey notes. “For example, using digital watermarks that will make it harder to be able to pass off generative AI created images as your own within a manuscript.” But there is no question that this will be a complicated problem to tackle.
Dr Nippe points out another potential misuse of AI. “It could also be abused by reviewers who get an invitation to review a manuscript and, rather than actually writing a report on it, they might upload that manuscript to ChatGPT — which would not be allowed, by the way; that would be a breach of confidentiality. But they might say: ‘Give me a 200-word summary report of this paper with some comments for improvement,’ and that would not be an appropriate way to conduct a review.”
Providing the world’s highest quality research
At Elsevier, we hope our rigorous processes and methods help researchers feel confident that they can trust our publications. The data seems to bear out that they do.
While 18% of articles were published by Elsevier from 2017 to 2021, during that time we had a 27% share as measured by citations, which indicates that leaders in research trust our publications.
Furthermore, we’re honored to work with the authors and editors that help us deliver an even greater percentage of the world’s highest quality research as measured by Field Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI):
33% of the top 10% journal FWCI tier
29% of the 10-25% journal FWCI tier
We hope to be able to continue and grow our reputation as a leading publisher spotlighting top research from around the globe.
No publisher can guarantee that fraudulent papers or falsified information won’t ever make it to publication, but at Elsevier, we work to build trust with our readers and partners by maintaining high standards, constantly seeking new ways to improve our processes, and investing in new tools. This includes involvement with initiatives and organizations like the STM Integrity Hub(opens in new tab/window), COPE(opens in new tab/window) and the European Association of Science Editors(opens in new tab/window). Dr Stuckey notes:
It's really important to understand what’s going on across the whole publishing ecosystem — to understand what other ethics teams and other publishing houses are doing, to make sure we clearly communicate what we're doing ourselves, and to help others understand best practice and to avoid pitfalls if they wish to submit papers to Elsevier.
“We're getting there,” Nippe adds. “We're all developing our tools. We’re all expanding our teams. We're all increasing our knowledge,” she says, noting that it’s always an “arms race” between the ethics teams and the fraudsters.
But she also emphasizes how much Elsevier strives to bring trust and value to authors, the vast majority of whom are dedicated researchers who are eager to share their work with a broader audience. “We put a lot in to make sure that we have credible, trusted titles and that we support the authors as best as we can on their submission journey.”
With the help of the Research Integrity and Ethics team, Elsevier is proud to be building a body of published research that you can trust.