Is academic publishing falling prey to unethical practices?

Is academic publishing falling prey to unethical practices?

Publishers, governments, and learned societies the world over are faced with the intractable issue of academic corruption. While the volume of scientific publishing is increasing, the ‘publish or perish’ culture is leading some researchers to indulge in fraudulent ways to get published. The magnanimity of this problem is evident from the number of peer review rigging incidents and the rising rate of retraction. Cases of author misconduct have not spared even the most reputed peer-reviewed journals.

To what extent can authors go in order to get published? A recently published article For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal by Charles Sefie brought to attention some rampant unethical publishing practices, most of which have roots in China. The worrisome trends in academic publication that the article highlights are:

The occurrence of suspicious repetition of phrases and other irregularities

The author of the article found that six of the 14 articles in the May 2014 issue of Diagnostic Pathology contained phrases that were directly copied from previously published papers. For instance, one of the articles written by Chinese authors included this paragraph:

“However, it is necessary to conduct large sample studies using standardized unbiased genotyping methods, homogeneous gastric cancer patients and well-matched controls. Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the XPCpolymorphisms and gastric cancer risk.”

This looks suspiciously similar to the following content published in a paper some years back in the European Journal of Human Genetics. The Chinese authors retained the basic sentences and filled the blanks with information relating to their research:

“However, it is necessary to conduct large trials using standardized unbiased methods, homogeneous PCA patients and well-matched controls, with the assessors blinded to the data. Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the CDH1−160 C/A polymorphism and PCA risk.”

Closer investigation revealed that dozens of papers by different research teams had copied the same awkwardly constructed phrase "lead to our better, comprehensive understanding" in their published papers. Interestingly, apart from copying awkwardly phrased sentences, some papers have even blindly replicated terms such as “Begger’s funnel plot,” which is a misnomer. The authors involved in all these cases were Chinese. Surprisingly, the journal editors failed to spot these irregularities, which is probably indicative of a problem more sinister than plagiarism.   

Companies selling topics of research and authorship for money

While attemptting to uncover the dark underbelly of academic publishing, Sefie found that many online services such as MedChina offer dozens of scientific "topics for sale" and scientific journal "article transfer" agreements to authors who are looking to get published quickly in an international journal. This is reminiscent of the fairly recent scandal involving the discovery of an academic black market in China. Authorship for articles that were more or less accepted in peer-reviewed journals was on sale, and the fees depended on the impact factor of the target journal and whether the paper was experimental or meta-analytic. For instance, Sefie was offered authorship of a meta-analysis linking a protein to papillary thyroid cancer slated to be published in a journal with an impact factor of 3.353 for about $15,000. A question that arises is who is the author of these articles? The authenticity of the articles is questionable as it could be the work of ghost authors.

Chinese government funding many of the suspect papers

It was found that 24 of the 100 tampered papers identified by Scientific American had been funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), a governmental funding agency. A few more suspected papers had been funded by other government sources. China is gradually emerging as a global leader in scientific research and publishing, but is faced with several grass root level problems with respect to research management and publication ethics. Identifying this, the Chinese government is making reforms to its research system.  

The article raises some crucial questions about the role of journals in tracking plagiarism and conducting effective peer reviews as well as the need to understand authors’ problems and viewpoint.

What should journals do to spot irregularities in papers?

Journals use plagiarism software to check if any part of the paper has been plagiarized. It is, however, a fact that plagiarism check may not always be successful in detecting flaws in every paper. As Sefie points out, “The dubious papers aren't easy to spot. Taken individually each research article seems legitimate.” Since plagiarism software cannot be relied on completely, some journals have initiated a “similarity check” to verify a paper’s originality. Apart from this, peer reviewers and journal editors should be vigilant of any worrisome patterns in the manuscripts.  

Should the copying of phrases always be alluded to as plagiarism or peer review rigging?

Is it possible that the copying of phrases and incorrect terms is not always an attempt at doctoring papers or plagiarizing content? Some people are of the opinion that unaware of plagiarism, some non-native English-speaking researchers who want to get published in an English journal may copy phrases from previously published papers to express themselves better with the belief that good language would make their papers acceptable. Therefore, copied phrases may not always be an indication of bad science. The fact that such papers clear peer review without rousing any suspicion casts doubt on the peer review system. Editors should pay special attention to such cases where copied text is and evaluate whether it is the research ideas or just the text that has been copied. 

Why are authors tempted to indulge in misconduct?

Researchers want to get published quickly in journals with a high impact factor since publishing in reputed journals improves the chances of getting grants and tenured positions. The pressure to publish and the money at stake drive authors to resort to unethical practices. As Randy Sheckman, a Nobel Prize-winning American cell biologist, states in an article, “luxury journals” with high impact factor and high rejection rates “aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.” Hence, he feels researchers should not restrict their choice of journals based on impact factor and should understand that publishing good science is more important than publishing in a journal with a high impact factor.

Scholarly research and publishing is flourishing owing to international collaboration among research teams, increase in the output of research, and monumental scientific advancements. However, the lack of regard for ethical publishing is a concern that needs to be addressed by every institution, government, and learned society to create a culture where credible and good-quality research is published ethically.

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