You can fake peer review?

I’d never even considered the possibility of faking peer review, but it turns out that it’s possible, if you have a sufficiently sloppy journal.

It’s possible to fake peer review because authors are often asked to suggest potential reviewers for their own papers. This is done because research subjects are often blindingly niche; a researcher working in a sub-sub-field may be more aware than the journal editor of who is best-placed to assess the work.

But some journals go further and request, or allow, authors to submit the contact details of these potential reviewers. If the editor isn’t aware of the potential for a scam, they then merrily send the requests for review out to fake e-mail addresses, often using the names of actual researchers. And at the other end of the fake e-mail address is someone who’s in on the game and happy to send in a friendly review.

But this makes no sense! At least with real peer review, you’re kinda sorta somewhat guaranteed that two people will read your paper — the reviewers. If you’re using fake peer review, sending your paper to the kind of crappy journal that can allow it, it may mean no one will ever read it. It’s a notch on your CV, I guess.

I do appreciate the error made that allows them to be caught, though.

Fake peer reviewers often “know what a review looks like and know enough to make it look plausible,” said Elizabeth Wager, editor of the journal Research Integrity & Peer Review. But they aren’t always good at faking less obvious quirks of academia: “When a lot of the fake peer reviews first came up, one of the reasons the editors spotted them was that the reviewers responded on time,” Wager told Ars. Reviewers almost always have to be chased, so “this was the red flag. And in a few cases, both the reviews would pop up within a few minutes of each other.”

So now all the fake scientists with the fake reviewer email addresses will know to wait a week or two before sending in their two thumbs up reviews. Or, for added verisimilitude, they’ll hold the reply for six months or more. Now we’ll never catch them!


  1. blf says

    they aren’t always good at faking less obvious quirks of academia: “When a lot of the fake peer reviews first came up, one of the reasons the editors spotted them was that the reviewers responded on time”

    I always thought that was one of the more, not less, obvious quirks of genuine experts (not just academics): When you do get something, it’s probably worthwhile, but getting it in the first place is bloody difficult.

  2. brucej says

    It’s a notch on your CV, I guess.

    This is, as many of the ills of academia (plagiarism, faking research, data torture, mining data for spurious correlations) are, directly tied to the “Publish or Perish” model of keeping their jobs, getting promoted and getting tenure.

  3. brucej says

    @blf : I worked with someone who was the editorial assistant for a respectable chemistry journal (J. Med Chem.) for a number of years. The biggest headache he had (even more than annoying authors who were unable to properly format their submissions) was getting their reviewers to finally respond with the reviews they had promised to do.

    It was bad enough when their reviews come back “Yes, this is good to publish” but it got exponentially worse if the paper had to make a round trip or two for revisions. There was also the not-infrequent issue of conflicts of interest…a peer reviewer for a sub-sub-niche is likely working on the same thing as the subject of the paper. He had a case or two where a reviewer deliberately sat on a submission so they could get their own papers into the queue.

  4. komarov says

    If you’re just fishing for the entry on your list of publications, wouldn’t it be easier to make up a fake journal in its entirety? Just put that made up reference on your CV and you’re done. Noone will ever look it up. If they did they’d soon decide that the journal in question must simply be too specialised to show up in searches or be included in whatever deals your institution library or company has made with publishers. Instead they’ll go for one of the more recognisable publications (assuming they’re trying to measure up your work in general, not a specific paper).
    It would also be a bit easier to cover up if you were in danger of being caught. The reference disappears and there is no other evidence because it was all made up.* As an added bonus, you can keep trying to publish those borderline papers just in case they actually make it into a real journal. Either way it still doesn’t make sense but I guess it’s a consequence of the “publish or perish” business.

    *That paper in the Royal Imperial Journal of Important Scientific Discovery (R. I. J. Imp. Sci. Disc.)? Must have been a template I forgot to erase. Well, I don’t see it anywhere, so I guess that’s all sorted then. Cheers, bye.

  5. inflection says

    …wait. Are editors worried about me being fake then? Because I *always* submit my refereeing on time. I don’t think I’ve ever been late with one. I would be f*cking /petrified/ of what an editor would think of me at a journal if I dared try to submit after having been late on a review for them.

  6. Snoof says

    At least with real peer review, you’re kinda sorta somewhat guaranteed that two people will read your paper — the reviewers.

    The qualifiers are appropriate. A couple of my friends in academia have complained to me about reviewers who clearly haven’t read the papers.

  7. michaelumilik says

    As an editor (for nearly 8 years) of a scientific journal I would state that any editor who assigns a paper to a reviewer without establishing his/her credentials (e.g. via pubmed !) shouldn’t be an editor. I very seldom use reviewers that have been suggested by authors and, in fact, am just as likely using one they specifically excluded (and not once has any of those rejected a paper). The problem isn’t with fake reviews it is with fake journals. Unfortunately Jeffrey Beall had to close down his fascinating blog in which he tracked what he called predatory publisher’s, although I suspect his list probably still floats around the interweb somewhere.

  8. blf says

    The problem isn’t with fake reviews it is with fake journals.

    There seem to be at least two dubious claims here: The implication there is only one problem (“The problem…”), albeit I accept that implication is perhaps inadvertent; and more significantly, The dismissal of an non-orthogonal possibly: Why can’t both be problems?

    Fake journals strike me as being the vastly more common problem (similar to poopyhead in the OP, I’d never even considered it was possible to fake a review outside of the fake journal realm), but as per the OP and its reference, fake reviews can and do happen, albeit mostly or entirely in lower-impact journals.

  9. astro says

    by the way, having fake papers reviewed by fake reviewers for publication in fake journals is one way to get ahead in science-oriented government agencies.

    i personally know a deputy administrator who secured their current position of considerable authority by having more papers than anyone else in the agency. this individual is in charge of assigning projects for papers and for sending people to conferences. if you want to present at a conference, you need to publish a paper, and you’re not allowed to publish without this individual’s approval, which in turn requires you to add them as an author. this individual never actually reads the papers, and all too often has no idea what they are about (leading to many embarrassing moments when asked at conferences).

    by the way, this individual is ethically challenged in many other ways as well, leading me to wonder if they got their start with these fake journals. out of caution, i’m not going to name the agency, since that would be futile dumb & assinine.

  10. nomadiq says

    This is just weird. My group just submitted a paper after a grueling effort to get it all together and as sound as possible. When submitting it we have the option to suggest some reviewers as well. All we could do was think of some of the most impressive competitors to send it to because 1) we want to show off and 2) we are confident this work will impress but want a strong level of feedback with constructive criticism from deep thinkers. We know this work would benefit from additional input and thought.

    To want otherwise is to be cowardly.