Science journalist Leonid Schneider on paper mills, where fake scientific papers can be ordered and published in journals
Mr. Schneider, you have been dealing with dysfunctionalities in the scientific system, especially in the field of scientific publishing, for many years in your blog forbetterscience. The Paper Mills phenomenon is a new curiosity. Could you briefly explain what these paper mills are?? Leonid Schneider: A paper mill is a service provider, like essay mills that sell students fake essays and entire dissertations. But the customers of paper mills are academics and doctors. You order there as a customer a scientific paper that fits to a topic of your research direction. The paper is written by ghostwriters, with completely invented scientific results and completely invented falsified data. As it is, paper mills offer a full service: Not only do they write the paper, they even submit it to the journal, they also do the peer review, and if necessary they provide more fictitious data. Whether corrupt journal editors are on the payroll of the paper mills is unclear, but quite likely, as some journals are particularly conspicuously affected. The muhle ames the identity of the listed author, i.e. the customer, including ghost email addresses. The customer does not have to do anything but pay, and in the end gets a published scientific study in an international journal, without having done any research for it. However, one should not confuse this with service providers who merely offer to write the paper according to the customer’s specifications from the customer’s real existing research data. In this case, the client also submits the paper to the journal itself. Although it may be that some service providers offer a broader range of services … What are the quantities to be amed here? Leonid Schneider: We are only at the beginning. But it will be very, very much. Especially from China, where doctors are expected to publish articles if they want to be promoted. All doctors, not only those at university hospitals, but also those in provincial hospitals. The four colleagues with the pseudonyms Smut Clyde, Morty, Tiger BB8, as well as the well-known Elisabeth Bik, who uncovered these hundreds of fake papers (almost 450 could be assigned to a single paper muhle), have done an unbelievable job. Such an incredible work that even the journal Science refuses to believe they alone had done it. The performance of Smut Clyde, Morty and Tiger BB8 was negated by the Science editors and even two completely uninvolved but "more respectable" Persons assigned: an Australian professor and a staff member of the journal FEBS Letters. Our original article was intentionally not mentioned and not linked to. My point is: instead of productive support, my colleagues and I are getting hostility like this. I hope they have the desire to continue in spite of everything.
Mill operators and the editors of such journals must be in cahoots
In which journals are products from paper mills published as articles most frequently?? Leonid Schneider: My colleagues have identified the following journals as particularly problematic: Journal of Cellular Biochemistry (Wiley) with 52 papers, Biomedicine Pharmacotherapy (Elsevier) with 46 papers and Artificial Cells Nanomedicine and Biotechnology (Taylor Francis) with 76 papers. Many others are also affected, interesting is also the case of the Italian European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences (Verduci Editore). They have accepted masses of papers from paper mills. It is quite clear that the mill operators and the editors of such journals must be in cahoots with each other. A list can be found online and can be consulted. Generally, these are rather unobtrusive journals with an impact factor that is not too high, but high enough to secure the client’s call or a salary bonus. There are many to choose from and the paper mills always find a willing partner. Especially if it is an open access journal, where the money flows from the "Author" directly to the publisher. So, as a rule, these are not so-called predictive or fake journals? Leonid Schneider: No, not at all. On the other hand, we need to rethink our definition of Predatory Journal. In the meantime, it turned out that predatory journals also operate a kind of peer review, with real scientists as peer reviewers. As my colleagues uncovered, seemingly reputable journals at Wiley, Elsevier, and Taylor can be Francis in reality to be Predatory Journals, where editorial oversight and peer review are mere facades. How to unmask the publications from Paper Mills as their products? Leonid Schneider: The colleagues have a super talent for uncovering duplications. And they then see that suspiciously similar, fabricated-looking Western blots or FACS plots (roughly speaking, antibody-based analyses of protein expression/modification) keep popping up in various papers. This means that all these papers come from the same paper mill. Then they search for more papers in the same journal or they use other search criteria to find other suspicious publications.
"How do we know that there was a peer review at all??"
Why do so many articles from Paper Mills make it through peer review at all?? Leonid Schneider: How do we know that there was a peer review at all?? Or that this was not done by authors or paper mills using false email addresses to review the paper themselves (fake peer review)? When you have a corrupt editor in a greedy open access journal, it runs like clockwork. In some journals, however, there were peer reviews, it is then those in which quite few such paper mill products were found. The paper mills reacted to the reviewer comments and fabricated some data. My colleagues have also found such trap. How do the journals react?. Whose editors, when confronted with the fabricated results? Leonid Schneider: Some are shocked and want to crack down immediately, with retractions and even bans on all Chinese authors, which I don’t think is fair. Some others are involved or want to quickly forget the damaging affair. Elsevier never answered me by the way. What consequences do you think authors who have their articles produced by Paper Mills will have to face if the whole hoax is exposed?? Leonid Schneider: Well, in China there can be severe consequences, but only if you are caught and paraded in public. But this does not apply to all those caught. Highly placed people get off easy, you can always find the one you want "true" Guilty who also confesses. In this respect, we are eagerly waiting to see how the Xuetao Cao affair will develop. That’s when Elisabeth Bik and my other colleagues, the same ones by the way, discovered that one of the big stars of immunological research in China was himself responsible for about 60 publications with partly blatantly falsified data. The irony: Xuetao Cao, who is also a Leopoldina member, was appointed by the Communist Party as the top research integrity official.
"Our scientific system and publishing are corrupt and rotten"
Are the causes for the claiming of Paper Mills also to be sought in the gratification system of science? Leonid Schneider: Clear. Our scientific system and publishing are so corrupt and rotten that the Chinese simply hacked it. Serves us right. Nobody reads the papers, especially not critically. Data falsification is often the normal state of affairs, as long as you achieve your goal and sneak the paper into a highly ranked journal. Scientists give away citations and even authorships to important colleagues in order to suck up or because these colleagues force them to do so. And then you congratulate yourself on the number of papers, the citation index and the impact factor. Just look at the Wikipedia profiles of our academics. How do we know that German and US doctors are not buying paper mill products? China, where the use of mills seems to be widespread, is now moving away from the practice of paying researchers bonuses for publications if they appear in highly ranked journals. What effects do you expect from this? Leonid Schneider: Sounds good, but the Chinese government always knows what to say to impress the West. At the same time Traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM, is being pushed because party leader Xi Jinping is such a fan of it. Even now with the coronavirus epidemic, China has whole universities dedicated to TCM. If the party decrees from above to scientifically prove TCM as an effective healing method, how can it be done?? Only with fraud. Either you fake yourself or you buy a paper from a paper mill. Elisabeth even reported that a laughable TCM coronavirus cure paper plagiarized another unbelievable TCM coronavirus cure paper. But the TCM prescription was changed, adapted to what the Chinese leadership officially prescribed as the coronavirus therapy. Published was this alleged "peer reviewed" "Masterpiece" at Elsevier. So one should be careful with party statements. From China to Germany: How do you perceive the situation here?? Leonid Schneider: See above. Also German university physicians have to publish something somewhere and also a lot in order to be promoted. Often it is plagiarism or falsehoods. Perhaps also paper mill services? In your opinion, what steps were necessary to increase the credibility of scientific publications, not only in the context of Paper Mills?? Leonid Schneider: I am for an absolute preprint mandate. This has many advantages, I have also discussed this online. From then on it can only change for the better. But instead, with Plan S, we want to require such fraudulent open access journals as well. (Ulrich Herb)