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Nov 02 2012

Another cheating scandal in science

Peer review is an important part of the academic publication process. All scholarly articles undergo peer review from at least one other person familiar with the field (plus an editor of the journal), although two is the more common number of reviewers, and sometimes may be more if there is disagreement amongst the reviewers or a strong appeal from the author of a rejected paper.

Journals usually have databases of reviewers from which they pick. Some journals also request authors of papers to submit names of possible reviewers. This helps to identify other scientists who are familiar with the field and who can be added to the databases. The editors are not obliged to use any of the suggested names but may do so, especially if the field is esoteric and requires very specialized knowledge.

This article (unfortunately behind a paywall) says that some unscrupulous researchers have abused this practice.

Scientists appear to have figured out a new way to avoid any bad prepublication reviews that dissuade journals from publishing their articles: Write positive reviews themselves, under other people’s names.

In incidents involving four scientists—the latest case coming to light two weeks ago—journal editors say authors got to critique their own papers by suggesting reviewers with contact e-mails that actually went to themselves.

The people behind the misconduct created email accounts in Gmail or Yahoo. The names given either did not correspond to real people or they were real people who had no idea that their names were being used in this way. The editors made the error of trusting the authors and not using addresses from their own databases.

The researchers were also not that smart. One editor became suspicious when glowing reviews arrived within a couple of days, something unheard of in academia where reviewers tend to procrastinate on this task. The fact that the reviewers did not have institutional email addresses added to the suspicion, and further investigation revealed the fraud.

The reason why the prompt arrival of reviews caused suspicion is that although editors request reviews to be returned within a couple of weeks, they almost always have to coax and cajole reviewers to send them in because this is purely a labor of love on the reviewers’ part and does not reward them in any tangible way. Scientists review papers out of a sense of obligation to help in the process since they too benefit from similar work done by others but this does not mean they are eager to do so. I found reviewing papers to be time consuming but educational, since you usually learn something from a close reading of other people’s work in areas that are related to your own.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Jared A

    I had noticed before that this might actually be possible, but I figured (hoped?) that no one would be dumb/dishonest enough to actually try it. Even if you were careful it would eventually backfire because journal editors tend to know a lot of people in their field, and would get suspicious if their friends suddenly change their writing style/standards.

    Peer reviewing is the scientists’ version of going to church. It’s a holy duty without immediately tangible rewards; instead it is performed for the greater good. It’s non-compulsary, and behavior is governed on the honor system. Your obligations are passed down by your priest (editor) or one of his deacons (assistant editors). And in the end it probably will take up a few hours per week on average.

  2. 2
    left0ver1under

    It’s bad enough that raving religious loons don’t know enough about science to understand what they oppose (and there are plenty of uneducated rubes willing to listen) or they use already known falsehoods and claim that science is based on them (e.g. Piltdown man).

    But it’s made worse by scientists undermining their own or others’ work by falsifying it (e.g. Hwang Woo-suk). It makes the loons think they’re right, and some of the uneducated-but-undecided types end up believing the loons.

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