Peer Review Scandal – Fake Peer Reviews Cause Scientific Credibility Crisis

It’s Publish or Perish in many scientific disciplines, but publishing isn’t just hammering out a few hundred words like this blog post. Science papers go through a peer review process, whose peer-review-scandal-scientistpurpose is to weed out fishy and invalid results. It appears that several scientific authors endeavored to short-cut the process, triggering the ‘recall’ of several dozen papers.

A scientific paper is supposed to be a contribution to knowledge. But papers are so specialized, that a science journal editor cannot be expected to know what is a contribution, what is bogus, and what is fluff. So to verify, the editor will send the paper out to other experts in the field—peers of the author—for validation.

But then the question arises: Who are these experts? Often the trusting editor asks the writer himself: “Oh Dr. Fox. Could you recommend some others to watch the hen house?”

However, the new scandal finds that selected authors have instead been recommending:

  • Their friends—we presume the favor would be returned.
  • Themselves—using pseudonyms.
  • Third party ‘rings’—this is the most amazing part. Apparently fake paper reviewing is now a business. Well a racket at least.

    peer-review-scandal-fake

Now before you get the idea that scientists are a bunch of crooks, let’s be clear, there are around 2 million scientific papers a year, and the peer review scandals are in the 100’s, so 99.99% are done honestly. We will have to say that 99.99% honesty is pretty extraordinary. Could we make such a claim about the legal profession? Or the investing class? Or congress? But because we expected 100%, it’s news.

In the past, an author would actually put up a list of actual peer experts, several of whom were likely rivals, then close his eyes, cross his fingers, and wait for the reviews. Most reviewers would insist on changes, and sometimes papers were killed. That’s life in Scienceland.

So how vast is the problem. Not very, one would like to believe. What exactly happened?

  • UK based Biomed Central, publisher of 270 scientific journals retracted 43 papers for ‘fabricated’ peer reviews.
  • Last year, Sage Publications had to pull 60 papers due to a ‘peer-review and citation ring’.
  • A watch-dog group: the Committee on Publication Ethics, had this to say: ” …..investigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses.  Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ…, others appear to be completely fictitious”

Apparent it is possible to ‘buy’ a peer review. Hopefully journal editors will take this seriously. On the surface it doesn’t seem to be an insolvable problem. Most likely, editors have been too trusting in the past. Unfortunately, 100% integrity no longer seems to be the norm.

Finally, would faked results be dangerous? Well they certainly could in principal. In practice, it would be tougher. If the result were a game changer, cold fusion, or a cure for ebola, it would be replicated many times before being applied to any practical problem.

Sometimes though, false information has enormous implications. You may remember this: in the late 90’s, then major telecom player Worldcom claimed the Internet was doubling in size every 90 days. It wasn’t doing anything of the sort, but Worldcom’s competitors believed it, and didn’t want to seem behind the trend, so they parroted the same claim. Everybody promptly bought it hook, line and sinker and soon was born the famous (or infamous) dot com bubble. The whole telecom industry was caught up in it. Huge segments overbought literally hundred of billions of dollars of equipment in anticipation of this exponential growth.

When the balloon burst, something like five trillion dollars was lost, most companies wee stuck with massive inventories of equipment they didn’t need, some by as much as a hundred fold. The debacle set into motion the demise and bankruptcy of Northern Telecom, Lucent, and several lessor luminaries. Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, and a fairly significant recession.

As to the president of Worldcom—the grand architect of the ‘doubling every 90 days’ claim—he’s doing 25 years at the lovely Oakdale Federal Prison in Louisiana. Being torn to shreds by jackals, the punishment advocated by the telecom industry, was declined by the sentencing judge.

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