China punishes more than 500 scientists for peer review fraud


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An investigation in China has revealed peer review fraud in more than 100 papers, causing that nation to discipline more than 500 researchers.

MOST’s 27 July announcement marked the culmination of an investigation into the mass retraction this past April of 107 papers by Chinese authors that appeared in a single journal, “Tumor Biology.” The papers, published between 2012 and 2016, were pulled after editors found “strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised,” Editor-in-Chief Torgny Stigbrand, of Umeå University in Sweden, wrote on 20 April on the website of the publisher Springer. (Springer, an arm of Springer Nature, published “Tumor Biology” until December 2016; the journal is now operated by SAGE Publications.)

Investigators say the authors engaged in an all-too-common scam. “Tumor Biology” allowed submitting authors to nominate reviewers. The Chinese authors suggested “experts” and provided email addresses that routed messages from the journal back to the researchers themselves, or to accomplices—sometimes third-party firms hired by the authors—who wrote glowing reviews that helped get the papers accepted.

As the article notes, the journal is as guilty as these fake scientists.

“Tumor Biology,” which is owned by the International Society of Oncology and BioMarkers, has a history of problems. In 2016 it retracted 25 papers all at once for similar peer-review problems. The journal now has the dubious distinction of having retracted “the most papers of any other journal,” according to Retraction Watch. An investigation by ScienceInsider found that several scientists listed on its editorial board had no relationship with the journal and one had even passed away several years ago. The journal “should also improve their examination system to prevent [abuse by] unscrupulous researchers,” Chen says.

SAGE took over responsibility for publishing the journal “with the agreement that there would be a complete overhaul of the editorial structure and peer review practices of the journal, specifically the use of preferred reviewers,” a SAGE spokesperson wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

Not surprisingly, the article includes some whining about the harshness of China’s punishments. Of the more than 500 disciplined, 314 were merely co-authors on a paper, and had not directly participated in the fraud. The investigation concluded that they should have been more diligent and aware of what the lead authors were doing, a perfectly reasonable conclusion.

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