Holly Else & Richard Van Noorden at Nature: “When Laura Fisher noticed striking similarities between research papers submitted to RSC Advances, she grew suspicious. None of the papers had authors or institutions in common, but their charts and titles looked alarmingly similar, says Fisher, the executive editor at the journal. “I was determined to try to get to the bottom of what was going on.”
A year later, in January 2021, Fisher retracted 68 papers from the journal, and editors at two other Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) titles retracted one each over similar suspicions; 15 are still under investigation. Fisher had found what seemed to be the products of paper mills: companies that churn out fake scientific manuscripts to order. All the papers came from authors at Chinese hospitals. The journals’ publisher, the RSC in London, announced in a statement that it had been the victim of what it believed to be “the systemic production of falsified research”.
What was surprising about this was not the paper-mill activity itself: research-integrity sleuths have repeatedly warned that some scientists buy papers from third-party firms to help their careers. Rather, it was extraordinary that a publisher had publicly announced something that journals generally keep quiet about. “We believe that it is a paper mill, so we want to be open and transparent,” Fisher says.
The RSC wasn’t alone, its statement added: “We are one of a number of publishers to have been affected by such activity.” Since last January, journals have retracted at least 370 papers that have been publicly linked to paper mills, an analysis by Nature has found, and many more retractions are expected to follow.
Much of this literature cleaning has come about because, last year, outside sleuths publicly flagged papers that they think came from paper mills owing to their suspiciously similar features. Collectively, the lists of flagged papers total more than 1,000 studies, the analysis shows. Editors are so concerned by the issue that last September, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a publisher-advisory body in London, held a forum dedicated to discussing “systematic manipulation of the publishing process via paper mills”. Their guest speaker was Elisabeth Bik, a research-integrity analyst in California known for her skill in spotting duplicated images in papers, and one of the sleuths who posts their concerns about paper mills online….(More)”.