It was a bad year for science publishing with more than 10,000 research papers being retracted, setting a new record for the most retractions in a single year. The results suggest this is just a fraction of the dodgy papers still out there.
According to recent analysis conducted by Nature, the number of retractions issued in 2023 has surpassed previous annual records, with the worse offenders being from large research-publishing nations such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China. These countries have had the highest retraction rates over the last two decades.
The publisher Hindawi, a London-based subsidiary of Wiley, has been responsible for most of the retractions to date. This year, the publisher has retracted over 8,000 articles due to what it believes are compromises to the peer-review process. This investigation was prompted by internal editors and research-integrity investigators who raised concerns about irrelevant references in thousands of papers, as well as incoherent text.
“In the dynamic world of scholarly publishing, researchers find themselves grappling between increasing pressures to publish and the growing vulnerability of the academic industry to systematic manipulation and fraudulent activity”, Hindawi has stated.
“As key players in the open access landscape, we faced serious disruptions and issued large numbers of article retractions in response to these research integrity challenges.”
One of the issues here has been Hindawi’s reliance on special issues, which are collections of articles that tend to be overseen by guest editors. These collections have become a focal point for scammers pretending to be guest editors so they can publish fake papers.
Although they have been “in the eye of this storm” in the last few years, Hindawi is not alone. This is a hurdle faced by all academic publishers and represents a major challenge for the future.
A rise in fraudulent efforts
The big issue, according to Richard Van Noorden of Nature, is “Retractions are rising at a rate that outstrips the growth of scientific papers.”
To investigate this, Nature combined the number of retractions collated by the media organization Retraction Watch with another 5,000 retractions from Hindawi and other publishers, with the help of the Dimensions database.
“Nature’s analysis suggests that the retraction rate – the proportion of papers published in any given year that go on to be retracted – has more than trebled in the past decade. In 2022, it exceeded 0.2 [percent].”
Among the countries that have had the highest numbers of retractions (more than 100,000 in the last 20 years), Saudi Arabia is the highest scoring with “30 per 10,000 articles” being retracted (excluding retractions based on conference papers).
“If conference papers are included, withdrawals from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in New York City put China in the lead, with a retraction rate above 30 per 10,000 articles,” Van Noorden explains.
Representatives from IEEE have explained that they feel their preventive measure and efforts work well to catch most fraudulent papers thrown their way, but Retraction Watch has found issues such as “tortured phrases, citation fraud and plagiarism, in hundreds of IEEE papers published in the past few years,” Van Noorden adds.
However, IEEE has apparently evaluated those papers and has found fewer than 60 did not reach their publication standards, 39 of which have been retracted so far.
This is just the tip of a deep iceberg is seems, with papers created by paper mills – businesses that sell fake work and authorships – being one of the biggest contributors across the world. These papers still cause issues even if they are not read, because their results (alleged results) are included and aggregated with others when scientists write review articles.
Science in practice
Despite the disturbing rise in fake papers and dodgy authors, the fact that publishers are retracting these dishonest contributions is a strength of the scientific and scholarly publishing world. Being alive to the possibility of fraud, and willing to review the evidence and reject those that fail to meet our standards, demonstrates that there still is an appreciation for honesty and integrity within the system.