Publishing: The peer-review scam

Most journal editors know how much effort it takes to persuade busy researchers to review a paper. That is why the editor of The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry was puzzled by the reviews for manuscripts by one author — Hyung-In Moon, a medicinal-plant researcher then at Dongguk University in Gyeongju, South Korea. The reviews themselves were not remarkable: mostly favourable, with some suggestions about how to improve the papers. What was unusual was how quickly they were completed — often within 24 hours. The turnaround was a little too fast, and Claudiu Supuran, the journal’s editor-in-chief, started to become suspicious. In 2012, he confronted Moon, who readily admitted that the reviews had come in so quickly because he had written many of them himself. The deception had not been hard to set up. Supuran’s journal and several others published by Informa Healthcare in London invite authors to suggest potential reviewers for their papers. So Moon provided names, sometimes of real scientists and sometimes pseudonyms, often with bogus e-mail addresses that would go directly to him or his colleagues. His confession led to the retraction of 28 papers by several Informa journals, and the resignation of an editor. Moon’s was not an isolated case. In the past 2 years, journals have been forced to retract more than 110 papers in at least 6 instances of peer-review rigging. What all these cases had in common was that researchers exploited vulnerabilities in the publishers’ computerized systems to dupe editors into accepting manuscripts, often by doing their own reviews. The cases involved publishing behemoths Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa, and they exploited security flaws that — in at least one of the systems — could make researchers vulnerable to even more serious identity theft. “For a piece of software that’s used by hundreds of thousands of academics worldwide, it really is appalling,” says Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who has used some of these programs to publish and review papers. But even the most secure software could be compromised. That is why some observers argue for changes to the way that editors assign papers to reviewers, particularly to end the use of reviewers suggested by a manuscript’s authors. Even Moon, who accepts the sole blame for nominating himself and his friends to review his papers, argues that editors should police the system against people like him. “Of course authors will ask for their friends,” he said in August 2012, “but editors are supposed to check they are not from the same institution or co-authors on previous papers.” Moon’s case is by no means the most spectacular instance of peer-review rigging in recent years. That honour goes to a case that came to light in May 2013, when Ali Nayfeh, then editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vibration and Control, received some troubling news. An author who had submitted a paper to the journal told Nayfeh that he had received e-mails about it from two people claiming to be reviewers. Reviewers do not normally have direct contact with authors, and — strangely — the e-mails came from generic-looking Gmail accounts rather than from the professional institutional accounts that many academics use. Read more:  Nature  Original web page at Nature