The pressure to publish is ever increasing. The motto “publish or perish” has become uncomfortably close to the truth. It is the level and number of publications after all that lead academics to being hired, or promoted into higher positions within a university or research institute. So, the pressure is on! Within this article, Amy Abelmann dives into what academic fraud is, how it has come about, its effects and our possible escape from it.
One essay at a time… The opportunity to not put in any effort into writing your own work starts early. For students, there are already essay-writing services, such as Edubirdie and iwriteessays.com, where you can hire professionals to write your essay. As one of the services advertises on their website, they “provide students with the best quality essays, term papers and research papers at the most reasonable prices while maintaining the highest level of professionalism and support for our customers” (iWriteEssays.com, 2019). On this level in your academic career, it might seem harmless. You pay someone to write your work. They earn money; you get some extra time to spend on other coursework. No harm done, right? The problem of academic publishing fraud is that it does not only happen on small-scale student-level writing, but also on a larger scale in academic publishing. This is where things get problematic.
How to commit Fraud (and maybe get away with it) In some countries, such as the Netherlands and the UK, there are strict protocols to prevent academic publishing fraud. The Dutch Notitie Wetenschappelijke Integriteit (KNAW, 2001) give two examples concerning this violation of scientific integrity:
1) presenting oneself as (co)author without having an important contribution to the set-up or execution of the reported research or the interpretation and description of the methods and findings; 2) either leaving out names of co-authors that contributed significantly to the research or including people as authors that did not contribute or contributed insufficiently to the research project.
Now you might be wondering, how do these author spots become available? Because most of the time, if an academic finally has managed to publish in a prestigious journal, they’ll hold onto to that spot for dear life. And normally they do. But sometimes it is to help out a friend. If the difference between being hired and being fired is one journal submission away, a friend who already has many prestigious journal entries can help out. For a nice financial compensation, of course. Sometimes their name will be replaced with yours, other times your name will just be added to theirs, as one of the co-authors. Easy does it.
So authorship of scientific papers is totally for sale. In China and Iran, amongst other countries, it is becoming more common to buy your position on the author-list of a paper in order to publish in journals with high-impact factors. This is a large issue as these countries currently have the fastest growth rate of scientific publications in the world (Ataie-Ashtiani, 2016). China is already declared as the world’s largest producer of scientific articles (Tollefson, 2016). An investigation from Science revealed that in China researchers are paying for author’s slots on manuscripts written by other researchers (Hvistendahl, 2013). A reporter found out that a Chinese company offers to sell the title of a first co-author and co-corresponding author on a cancer paper for $26,300. They would ask a deposit when the paper was accepted in the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology and you could pay the rest when it was published. Upon publication, the reporter found out that two of the original authors were dropped and replaced with other authors. These brokered papers appear both in journals owned by Chinese publishers as well as famous international journals owned by companies overseas. Science looked into 27 agencies that trade in these papers. They found out that only 5 of these agencies refused to write papers or broker authorship. This shows that online brokers are selling papers that accepted by academic journals, creating a culture in which authorship is for sale.
Getting Creative Academic publishing fraud is not only limited to the sale of authorship but can also take on a more creative or strategical approach. A phenomenon that is currently happening is that researchers list fake coauthors on their publication (Oransky, 2019; Biagioli, 2019). And there are two ways to do this:
One way is to add co-authors that are experts in the field from well-known universities to your author list. Having a famous researcher in your author-list would likely increase your chances of getting your paper accepted into a high-impact journals. This has happened, when a group of researchers listed a Dutch economist as corresponding author when they submitted a manuscript to a high-end journal (Biagoli, 2019). When the editors received the revised manuscript, the name of the Dutch economist was somehow no longer included. Instead, the new corresponding author and co-authors were all form Iranian universities. The journal was told that after extensive revisions the Dutch economist did not want to be listed as an author. When the journal contacted the Dutch researcher, he told them that this was already the third time that year that someone used his name to fraudulently submit a paper. Needless to say, the journal did not publish the paper.
But why take the risk of dealing with an expert who actually exists? You could also “invent” scientists with specific expertise (such as advanced data analysis) and fake affiliations with research institutes to maximize your credibility. This has been the case for Jesús Ángel Lemus, a Spanish veterinary doctor, who published his early publications with Javier Grande (Biagoli, 2019). According to Lemus, Grande was as an expert in analysing pathogens or antibiotics and “there was always a publishable result”. The mere existence of Grande gave a much higher level of credibility to the research. Things ended badly when Lemus made the strong claim that “half of all parrots in Barcelona are infected with a disease (psittacosis bacterium) that is transmissible to humans”. This got a lot of attention and as a result, co-authors tried and failed to replicate his tests. They discovered that there were no traces of Javier Grande and none of the coworkers had ever met him. Grande did not exist.
These examples show that the longing for success, the need to publish and being considered credible enough in the academic environment can push people to take extreme measures.
Publish or Perish? Academic publishing fraud raises large issues in the scientific community. Fraud in scientific publishing corrupts the foundation of scientific conduct, damages collaboration in the scientific community and impairs the trust of the general public in scientific experts. The responsibility in solving academic publishing fraud should lie with both universities as well as the editors of scientific journals. First of all, in order to solve this issue, a better screening is needed by journals to detect fake authorships (McCook, 2016). For bought authorships, this can be done by focusing more on possible signs a paper was for sale. For example, journals could check how many shared co-authored papers there are between combinations of authors. Also, they should check for textual overlap with other papers. Moreover, the use of a shared email address for multiple authors or one that is not affiliated with the proposed institute could indicate bought authorship. Another indication could be a change in authorship after a paper is published for an author that is unrelated to the research facility. For fake authorships (in which the author is unaware of inclusion in the manuscript), this can be simply done by emailing all co-authors at their institutional email address to check if they agreed to be an author on the submitted paper.
Most importantly, in order to discourage academic publishing fraud, universities and research institutes should change the criteria on which their researchers get promoted or receive research grants. As seen in China, amongst other countries, promotions within research centres depend on the number of publications and the impact-level of the journals in which the research is published, rather than the quality of the research. Publishing your research in a well-known journal does not always relate to the quality of the research, only that it is currently preferred by the journal. However, the problem lies deep in academic culture and, ultimately, we should aim to change the structure of publishing so that this does not influence further career development as much as it does now.
References Ataie-Ashtiani, B. (2016). Curbing Iran's academic misconduct. Science 351(6279), 1273-1274.
Biagioli, M. (2019). Plagiarizing Names? Trends in Chemistry, Volume 1, Issue 1, 3-5.
Hvistendahl, M. (2013). China's publication bazaar. Science, Vol. 342, Issue 6162, 1035-1039.
KNAW, V. N. (2001). Notitie wetenschappelijke integriteit . Amsterdam: KNAW.
McCook, A. (2016, October 24). 7 signs a scientific paper’s authorship was bought. Retrieved from Retraction Watch.
Oransky, I. (2019, April 23). “A new form of plagiarism:” When researchers fake co-authors’ names. Retrieved from Retraction Watch.
Tollefson, J. (2016). China declared world's largest producer of scientific articles. Nature 553(7689).