BioMed Central, a UK-based publishing house that's responsible for distributing 277 peer-reviewed journals, has retracted 43 papers, having discovered that they had published several papers with fabricated peer reviews.

While most of these papers were written by academics working in Chinese universities, including the China Medical University, Sichuan University, Shandong University, and Jiaotong University Medical School, Jigisha Patel, associate editorial director for research integrity at BioMed Central, told Fred Barbash at The Washington Post, "[It's] not a China problem. We get a lot of robust research of China. We see this as a broader problem of how scientists are judged."

The discovery was made when the profiles of the supposed reviewers were examined, and odd email addresses were found, and a strange history of review set off alarm bells. In most academic fields, a true reviewer is going to confine his or herself to a highly specific niche within their chosen field of expertise, but the fraudulent reviewers had been 'reviewing' papers over a suspiciously broad range of topics. And then when the investigators contacted the researchers who supposedly did the reviews, it was found that someone else had used their names.

While it's easy to isolate and boycott BioMed Central until they guarantee that the practice will not continue, this discovery has prompted a larger investigation that's revealed the problem is far more widespread than just this one publisher.

The Committee on Publication Ethics, which is an international and multidisciplinary group of over 9,000 editors from all academic fields, said in a statement this week, "[The committee] has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers." Which means we can expect a whole lot more retractions in the coming weeks and months.

As Barbash reports for The Washington Post, the issue of fabricated peer reviewing can appear in the form of careless and lazy reviewing, friends reviewing work by friends, or outright fraud. "Last year, in one of the most publicised scandals, the Journal of Vibration and Control, in the field of acoustics, retracted 60 articles at one time due to what it called a 'peer review and citation ring' in which the reviews, mostly from scholars in Taiwan, were submitted by people using fake names," says Barbash. 

Interestingly, Patel from BioMed Central also mentioned something in her statement in relation to organised 'rings' that impersonate real people, and create fictitious characters as the reviewers. "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," she told The Washington Post. At this stage, it's not clear whether the actual authors of the papers were aware of what was going on.

Going forward, BioMed Central will continue its investigation, and the papers that have been retracted are marked as so, in case anyone happens to come across them in future research. Hopefully the Committee on Publication Ethics, and other organisations like it, will continue to investigate this issue, because it pretty much goes without saying that proper peer-review is absolutely crucial to get right.

Meanwhile, late last year a hoax paper authored by two Simpsons characters and 'Kim Jong Fun' proved that some journals will literally accept anything, while a separate journal was found to have accepted a paper entitled "Get me off your f*cking mailing list", calling it "excellent" science, no less. The system's far from broken, but we've got a lot of improving to do.

Edit: We have edited or original introduction to reflect that the editors at BioMed Central were unaware of the fabricated peer reviews until recently.

Source: The Washington Post