February 29, 2024


Tens of thousands of bogus research papers are being published in journals in an international scandal that is worsening every year, scientists have warned. Medical research is being compromised, drug development is being hampered and promising academic research is being jeopardized thanks to a global wave of pseudoscience that is flooding laboratories and universities.

Last year, the annual number of papers retracted by research journals exceeded 10,000 for the first time. Most analysts believe the figure is only the tip of an iceberg of scientific fraud.

“The situation has become appalling,” said Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University. “The level of publication of fraudulent papers creates serious problems for science. In many fields, it becomes difficult to build a cumulative approach to a subject, because we do not have a solid foundation of reliable findings. And it’s getting worse and worse.”

The surprising increase in the publication of pseudoscientific papers has its roots in China, where young doctors and scientists seeking promotion had to publish scientific articles. Shadow organizations – known as “paper mills” – began to provide manufactured work for publication in journals there.

The practice has since spread to India, Iran, Russia, former Soviet Union states and Eastern Europe with paper mills supplying manufactured studies to more and more journals as increasing numbers of young scientists try to boost their careers by claiming fake research experience. In some cases, magazine editors were bribed to accept articles, while paper mills managed to establish their own agents as guest editors, which then allowed loads of forged work to be published.

Dr Dorothy Bishop: ‘People are building careers on the back of this tidal wave of fraudulent science.’ Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“Editors are not fulfilling their roles properly and peer reviewers are not doing their jobs. And some are paid large sums of money,” said Professor Alison Avenell of Aberdeen University. “This is deeply worrying.”

The products of paper mills often look like ordinary articles, but are based on templates, where names of genes or diseases are inserted randomly between fictitious tables and figures. Worryingly, these articles could then be incorporated into large databases used by those working on drug discovery.

Others are more bizarre and include research unrelated to a journal’s field, making it clear that no peer review has occurred regarding that article. An example is a paper on Marxist ideology that appeared in the journal Arithmetic and Mathematical Methods in Medicine. Others are distinctive because of the foreign language they use, including references to “abdominal danger” rather than breast cancer and “Parkinson’s ailment” rather than Parkinson’s disease.

Watchdog groups – such as Retraction Watch – have picked up on the problem, noting retractions by journals forced to act on occasions when fabrications have been exposed. One study, by Earth, revealed that in 2013 there were just over 1,000 withdrawals. In 2022, the figure was more than 4,000, before jumping to more than 10,000 last year.

Of this last total, more than 8,000 retracted papers were published in journals owned by Hindawi, a subsidiary of publisher Wiley, figures that have now forced the company to take action. “We will be breaking the Hindawi brand and have begun to fully integrate the 200-plus Hindawi journals into Wiley’s portfolio,” a Wiley spokesperson said. Observer.

The spokesperson added that Wiley has now identified hundreds of fraudsters who were present in their portfolio of journals, as well as those who held guest editorial roles. “We have removed them from our systems and will continue to take a proactive … approach in our efforts to clear the scholarly record, strengthen our integrity processes and contribute to solutions across the industry.”

But Wiley insisted it could not tackle the crisis on its own, a message echoed by other publishers who say they are under siege from paper mills. Academics however, remain cautious. The problem is that academics in many countries are paid according to the number of papers they have published.

“When you have growing numbers of researchers who are strongly incentivized to publish just for the sake of publishing, while we have a growing number of journals that make money from publishing the resulting articles, you have a perfect storm,” Professor Marcus said. Munafo said. from the University of Bristol. “And that’s exactly what we have now.”

The damage done by publishing poor or fabricated research is demonstrated by the antiparasitic drug ivermectin. Early laboratory studies indicated that it could be used to treat Covid-19 and it was considered a panacea. However, these studies were later found to show clear evidence of fraud, and medical authorities refused to support them as a treatment for Covid.

“The problem was that ivermectin was used by anti-vaxxers to say that we don’t need vaccination because we have this miracle drug,” said Jack Wilkinson at the University of Manchester. “But many of the trials that supported these claims were not authentic.”

Wilkinson added that he and his colleagues are trying to develop protocols that researchers can apply to reveal the authenticity of studies that they can incorporate into their own work. “There was some great science coming out during the pandemic, but there was also an ocean of junk research. We need ways to spot bad data from the start.”

The danger posed by the rise of the paper mill and fraudulent research papers was also highlighted by Professor Malcolm MacLeod of the University of Edinburgh. “If I, as a scientist, want to check all the papers on a particular drug that can target cancer or stroke cases, it is very difficult for me to avoid the fabricated ones. Scientific knowledge is polluted by fabricated material. We is facing a crisis.”

This point was supported by Bishop: “People build careers on the back of this tidal wave of fraudulent science and end up running scientific institutes and eventually being used by mainstream journals as reviewers and editors. Corruption is creeping into the system.”



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