DIY Peer Review

(November 28th, 2014) Evaluating your own manuscript makes publishing so much faster but this does make it legitimate. Open Access publisher BioMed Central has recently been hit by a peer review scam.

Why take the bumpy road when there’s a neatly asphalted street nearby? That must be what a few scientists thought when writing and submitting their manuscripts. Why struggle with obnoxious reviewers, who always find something to nag about, when you can simply rubberstamp your paper yourself? A few days ago, Retraction Watch reported on newly-discovered cases of fake reviews at BioMed Central.

In all cases, the authors themselves had suggested reviewers for their manuscripts. An attentive editor, however, noticed something fishy. “What tipped off the editor was minor spelling mistakes in the reviewers’ names, and odd non-institutional email addresses that were often changed once reviews had been submitted, in an apparent attempt to cover the fakers’ tracks,” writes Retraction Watch’s Ivan Oransky in the blog entry. All in all, BMC found irregularities in about 50 manuscripts. Although the processing of a majority of the manipulated manuscripts was stopped before doing science any harm, authors of fives papers got away with their scam.

This is not the first time rigged reviews have shattered academic publishing. Retraction Watch has counted over 100 papers in the past two years, involving publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis and Wiley, retracted for deceitful reviewing practices. These practices can take different forms: from suggesting friends as reviewers, who will, no matter what, give you a positive review (that’s what friends are for, right?), to making up ghost reviewers or stealing the identity of real researchers.

BMC suspects a third party behind their review manipulations. “The pattern we have found, where there is no apparent connection between the authors but similarities between the suggested reviewers, suggests that a third party could be behind this sophisticated fraud. We are still investigating what has happened here”, Jigisha Patel, Director of Research Integrity at BioMed Central, writes in a BioMed Central blog entry. “The whole process of scientific research and publication is based on trust and journals accept what they are told by authors at face value, unless there is a reason to be suspicious,” she adds.

In a first response, BMC decided to disable the reviewer suggestion option for now. But what can be done to prevent this type of fraud in the future? One way suggested by Patel might be “for genuine peer reviewers to take measures to protect their identity, for example, via initiatives like ORCID. This is an option we are pursuing, together with a review of our policy on author-suggested reviewers”.

BMC will now investigate and hopefully track down the culprits. And, they will share their findings.

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: Fotolia/

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