This is a different kind of post! This semester I stumbled into an enormous collection of phony research papers published in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences. I became fascinated with the brazen nature of this fraud, and its large scale. I learned that my discovery was, sadly, not unusual in the murky world of scientific publishing. I’m outlining the story below to increase awareness of publishing fraud and the corrosive effects it has on the scientific literature, the credibility of publishers, and the integrity of science itself. I’ve embedded several links to expert sources that will provide a larger context for these scams.
I have a Google Scholar profile online that informs me when one of my papers is cited. In August 2021 I received a notice that Buatois et al. (2017; a trace fossil paper on which I am a co-author) was cited by:
Wei, X., Liu, L. Tropical cyclone and business English cross-cultural communication based on temporal big data. Arab J Geosci 14, 1734 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12517-021-07894-7
The title was so bizarre that I had to find the article and see how it cited us. What have we ever done with cyclones, let alone “English cross-cultural communication”? But there we are, cited in a reference section that has only authors A-C alphabetically. All the citations are concerned with geology and paleontology issues unrelated to the strange text of the paper. Clearly the reference list had been copied and pasted from a legitimate paper. (Maybe even fake papers need real references?)
I immediately contacted the Nature Springer Senior Editor for the Middle East and North Africa, who readily agreed that this paper and others in the special volume were problems and that Nature Springer would take action. (They initially tagged the papers with “notes of concern”.) I then learned about the publishing watchdog website PubPeer, where I made an account and posted my concerns with the Arabian Journal of Geosciences papers. Experts on PubPeer then took the story on and greatly expanded it, with the eventual result of articles in Retraction Watch (August 26, 2021) and The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 28, 2021). Six weeks later Nature published a summary article on this scam and others (November 8, 2021).
In November 2021, Springer Nature began retracting hundreds of fake papers. A typical retraction note looks like this:These fake papers are apparently produced in what are termed “paper mills” (in the publishing sense, not the physical plants that manufacture paper!). Dishonest scientists and other professionals purchase these manuscripts and submit them to journals to bolster their research credentials. Here is another Nature article on the bull market for this kind of scientific fraud. This growing list of fraudulent papers is astonishing. This fraud is all disturbing enough, but it is also clear that some journal editors are either not paying attention to what is being published on their watch or somehow benefit from the paper mill system.
In the geology case described here, I’m amazed that there are dozens of published papers that are complete nonsense, including their titles. You would think a customer would at least demand a generic science-sounding title to fly under the radar of editors and the readership. This is the brazenness of this particular scam — that they expected to be unnoticed by the legitimate scientific community.