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Paper mills: see the wood for the trees (Part 3)

5 December 2022 | 6 min read

By Katie Eve

paper mills image

Practical steps to combat paper mills

Actions to detect and prevent publication of suspected paper mill products

Naturally, journals that have been previously targeted by paper mills, employ a range of Elsevier tools and other measures to ensure they have rigorous programs in place to prevent them from falling prey to paper mill submissions again. In this article we share a selection of examples in the hope that these will help you in identifying potential paper mill content.

Validate authors more closely and question authorship changes

At least one journal now requires all authors to use institutional email addresses. This is a significant step, as use of institutional emails for journal submission is uncommon practice in several key regions; it may also exclude researchers who are between jobs or retired, for example. More common is undertaking due diligence by investigating unfamiliar emails e.g., for previous publications associated with the same email.

Specific caution should be exercised when there are authorship change requests, for example, requiring the authors’ alleged institutes to provide direct confirmation to the editor. Another development that may help is Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CrediT), which will soon be rolled out across all suitable Elsevier journals. CRediT requires the corresponding author to detail the contributions of each author by selecting from one or more of 14 distinct contribution types that go into scholarly work. With such information provided at submission, the rationale for changes in authorship would be brought into clear question.

Request raw data

Most journals impacted significantly by paper mills now require raw and complete data, including raw uncut western blots, to be provided with submissions as standard. Other journals ask authors to supply raw data if they have any reason to doubt the authenticity of the data provided. For many journals, we also now require authors to link to their datasets or provide data availability statements.

Alarm bells ring if the author fails to respond or makes excuses for the loss of original data such as “my hard drive broke”. However, even if the data is provided, assessing its validity is not always straightforward: specialist software may be required to open or view the data; specific experience may be required to truly interpret the data; and problems might only be obvious when assessing the data provided across multiple submissions.

Employ image duplication and manipulation detection software

Elsevier is deeply committed to improving image integrity pre-publication in general but particularly as a means to detect paper mill submissions. For many years we have been educating editors on this topic alongside offering clear policies for authors, which have been in place since 2008. Over the past several years we have been actively seeking image-checking software and have also collaborated with other publishers, as part of the STM Association’s Working Group on Image Alteration and Duplication Detection, to publish image integrity recommendationsopens in new tab/window.

Some potential tools have now emerged which can detect duplication and manipulation in western blots and micrographs, and over 100 of our journals are currently piloting standalone software for this purpose. This software provides additional “forensic” information to editors, allowing them to home in on manuscripts that show clear issues, but still requires expert interpretation by subject specialists. Some journals that have been most affected by paper mills have implemented still further checks, with image experts conducting manual checks for any evidence of manipulation on all provisionally accepted papers.

Even so, the greatest chance of success will still come from combining various automated checks, which each have slightly different capabilities in terms of the type of data and images they can assess, as well as manual image forensics checks, to cover the full spectrum of manipulation types possible.

Grow intelligence within editorial teams

In line with Elsevier’s commitment to inclusion & diversity, it is paramount that the paper mill phenomenon does not create bias against individuals from certain types of institutes or geographies. At the same time, our editors must undertake due diligence to ensure the trustworthiness of accepted and published content for the community. For example, by consulting trusted and knowledgeable Editorial Board members “on the ground” who can advise on whether an author’s institution has the necessary research facilities to undertake the study reported, journals can ascertain whether the research study and data collection was likely to be legitimate. Other examples where specific expertise can be valuable is in statistical review and analysis of specialist data.

Critically review what types of submissions are in scope

While we do not encourage policy changes that indiscriminately exclude entire topic areas, an exception applies in cases where the hypotheses typical of some paper mills works also do not further scientific endeavor: “manuscripts describing series of experiments that are poorly matched to predicted gene or protein functions should be considered for desk rejection.” (ref: in new tab/window).

Act if you suspect a paper mill manuscript

Earlier this year we published a new decision tree for allegations of image duplication or manipulation, together with a new form letter for contacting authors regarding image integrity issues. The guidance draws on best practice recommendations from the STM Working Group on Image Alteration and Duplication Detectionopens in new tab/window and is aligned with COPE guidelinesopens in new tab/window. This includes step-by-step guidelines to follow to investigate cases and determine the most appropriate actions.

It is practically impossible to prove a paper originates from a paper mill, but if you suspect a paper mill is behind a case, always alert your publishing contact.

Collaborate to bolster our shared defence

You may have noticed frequent mention of collaboration in this series: between journals, across publishers and throughout the industry. STM Association’s Research Integrity Collaboration Hubopens in new tab/window may bring yet further opportunities to detect paper mill submissions and prevent their publication across journals. By organizing around the challenge, together we increase our chance of success against bad actors.

A positive side effect is building stronger connections and supportive networks that bring benefits beyond addressing the issue at hand. “One of the silver linings of this experience, has been working together with editors on different journals,” said Loren Wold, Editor-in-Chief, Life Sciences, adding “I meet regularly with editors on related journals to discuss the challenge and share best practice, but this also leads into broader strategic discussions about our journals and the field beyond.”

We hope you have found this series informative, and we welcome your comments and feedback below.