In Brief
  • Shortly after retracting 25 studies in November of last year, a cancer journal has pulled another round of papers due to fraudulent peer review practices.
  • Such actions could be used to delegitimize other ethically reviewed work.

Gaming the System

A lot goes into scientific research. But the piles of money and endless hours of painstaking work and detail that go into the research itself are all just the beginning. There’s an entire process that occurs after the research is done, the data is compiled, and the study is written. This is the peer review, which all legitimate science must be subjected to. That being said, some nefarious folks have found ways of circumnavigating that process.

A release from the publishers of the medical journal Tumor Biology explains that they are retracting 107 research papers previously published by the journal. This comes shortly after the publication had to retract 25 studies late last year. The release states, “After a thorough investigation we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised.” It turns out that some people pulled a fast one on journal editors and connected them to fake reviewers. Many publications will allow authors to suggest reviewers since many of the subjects researched require extremely specialized knowledge.

According to Ars Technica, “some journals go further and request, or allow, authors to submit the contact details of these potential reviewers.” This trust, naive as it may be in hindsight, allows the studies to be sent to fake emails, some of which fraudulently use the names of real researchers. The con is complete when a prompt positive review is sent back to the publisher and the paper is given the green light. Therein lies the downfall of the whole scam: promptness.

It turns out that actual peer reviewers are a little more cavalier with things like publishing deadlines, enough so that getting responses too quickly can raise red flags.

Image: Springer Tumor Biology
Image Credit: Springer Tumor Biology

Threatening Legitimacy

Breaches in ethics like this harm much more than just the offending entities or even the publications themselves. Ripple effects can be felt across the entire scientific community and beyond. Even incidents isolated to a single publication can serve as ammunition against any ethically reviewed scientific findings within the publication or others. Anecdotally, we can see this in the comments of news publications reporting the fraud. One reader commented “The U.S. EPA and Dept of Science should take note of this. This one example is but one of many of scientific fraud.”

This type of incident at a single, low-rated, cancer journal can be used to cast doubt upon the important work being done by governmental entities tasked with protecting the environment. Climate change deniers will take all the help they can get. Even if a fraudulent study is published for just a short while before being redacted, depending on who sees it, it could have drastic implications. Despite the reveal of fraud, information can spread and stick, continuing the misinformation.

The actions of those defrauding Tumor Biology or the lack of editorial oversight of the publication itself is by no means an indictment of the scientific community at whole. Casting doubt on the hard work of countless minds across the world is a dangerous prospect. Scientists are rightly held to the highest standards of ethics. We must not allow a few con artists delegitimize knowledge that will push us forward.