Scientific Publisher BioMed Central has withdrawn 43 papers, and is investigating many more, over what it calls the “fabrication” of peer reviews. Representatives of Journal editors have admitted the papers are the tip of a dangerous iceberg, and the scandal may to lead to an overhaul of how peer review is conducted.
Peer review is fundamental to science, a central part of the process of self-correction that sets it aside from faith-based systems. True peer review does not end with publication; plenty of scientific papers are published only to subsequently be shown to have major flaws. However, the initial process whereby editors of scientific publications send work, usually anonymized, to other researchers for checking is meant to filter out the worst mistakes.
That failed for a number of the 277 journals BioMed Central publishes, with researchers finding ways to review their own papers, or those of friends. The problem may be far more widespread, and BioMed Central may be ahead of the curve in picking the issue up.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) issued a statement saying they have, “become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.” COPE started out as an effort by a small group of medical journal editors to raise the standards of academic publication. It now has a membership of 9000 editors from across academic fields, and its growth is indicative of concerns about the challenges facing the peer review process.
According to the COPE release, “These manipulations appear to have been orchestrated by a number of third party agencies offering services to authors.”
This is not the first example of a “peer review and citation ring”. Sixty papers were withdrawn last year as a result of a similar discovery. However, those papers were restricted to a single journal. This time the problem seems to be far more widespread.
So far all the papers withdrawn by BioMed Central have had authors based in China, often at leading institutions such as China Medical University, but BioMed Central's says the problem is an international one reflecting the pressure researchers are under to publish quickly.
Concerns about peer review have been growing for decades. Reviewers are almost always already struggling under the burden of their own research and teaching load. Few are paid for their efforts, and even fewer get credit from their employers for this vital contribution to the advancement of science. Many admit off the record to not giving papers the attention they deserve.
Although bad papers can send scientific research off down blind alleys, but bad work more often gets ignored by others in the field. However, authors can be rewarded with funding that should have gone to someone else. Media outlets, whether mainstream or science-specific, usually have no choice but to rely on publication in a peer reviewed journal as the test of whether work justifies publicity.
When fraud is exposed it can have devastating consequences for innocent co-workers, and is fodder for science's enemies.
In these cases, since the research was medical-related, there is also the danger of treatments being approved for clinical use on the basis of flawed studies.