Another Mass Retraction

Springer is pulling 64 papers from 10 of its journals because of “fabricated peer-review reports.”

By Tracy Vence | August 17, 2015

PIXABAY, PUBLICDOMAINPICTURESFollowing up on the hunch of an editor who noticed irregularities in the reviewers suggested by submitting authors, Springer has identified more than five dozen papers that were published through manipulated peer review. The publisher is now pulling 64 papers, which were published in 10 of its journals, it announced today (August 17).

“The peer-review process is one of the cornerstones of quality, integrity, and reproducibility in research, and we take our responsibilities as its guardians seriously,” the publisher’s statement reads. “We are now reviewing our editorial processes across Springer to guard against this kind of manipulation of the peer review process in future.”

Specifically, “we are working to support our external editors to make them aware of the issues and ensure that thorough checks of peer reviewers are completed,” Springer’s William Curtis, executive vice president for medicine and biomedicine, elaborated in an email to The Scientist. “Credentials from peer reviewers will be increasingly checked by our editorial office, which support our editors-in-chief, and some journals may request more information in the form of an institutional email address and/or SCOPUS ID of the suggested reviewer[s].”

The journals continue to work with the authors and institutions affected by this mass retraction. “In situations where institutional investigations have found that authors have been inadvertently affected by the compromised peer-review process, they will be encouraged to resubmit and go through a legitimate peer-review process,” Curtis added.

Springer is not the first publisher to issue multiple retractions because of peer-review manipulation. This March, BioMed Central pulled 43 papers upon finding that “the peer-review process was inappropriately influenced and compromised.” And last July, Sage’s Journal of Vibration and Control retracted 60 articles after uncovering a peer review– and citation-fixing “ring.”

Update (August 18): In an email to The Scientist, a Springer spokesperson said that the most recent retractions posted to SpringerLink following yesterday’s announcement are not among the 64 forthcoming retractions described above, which are yet to be posted. “The 64 retractions have not appeared yet as it can take a while for it to appear on SpringerLink following release from our production system,” the spokesperson wrote. “They will be easy to spot as they will all mention the COPE [Committee on Publication Ethics] statement of December 2014.”

We will update this post as we learn more.

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Avatar of: wctopp


Posts: 110

August 18, 2015

"manipulation of the peer review process" "ensure that thorough checks of peer reviewers are completed".  This article reveals that something happened, but doesn't get around to saying what that is.  Just a bunch of euphemisms.

Avatar of: ProfLarry


Posts: 3

August 18, 2015

As wctopp notes, we are not informed of what manipulation was involved. In truth, the peer review process is increasingly a game that is biased and fundamentally flawed. (I am well experienced in this process, having served as journal editor, editorial board member, and referee for numerous journals, as well as the author of hundreds of papers.)

The flaws are many. Research that is fabricated or fraudulent gets through the peer process and is published while legitimate work can struggle for years to get through to the light of day; some never makes it, because the discouraged researcher slides it into a desk drawer where it can never become part of the stream of science. Yes, outright fraud sometimes gets found out, but how many remain unrevealed?

Negative or disconfirming results, so crucial to genuine scientific progress, are routinely rejected by referees. Studies have shown that blind review is a myth, that papers submitted under apparently white, male names are more likely to be accepted. Reviewers almost invariably know who submitted a paper even if authors are not allowed to know who reviewed and rejected their work. Editors wield far more power in final decisions than is acknowledged. Reviews are often overridden. Papers recommended for publication by all three referees have been rejected by the editor (supposedly the only one knowing the identity of the authors) and papers rejected by all reviewers have been accepted by the editor. The history of science is strewn with examples of revolutionary work of paradigmatic importance that was routinely rejected by first-tier journals and only saw the light of day through obscure or denigrated channels. And in the meantime, uncontroversial and inconsequential drivel by authors good at playing the game peppers the pages of our journals.

Yes, manipulation of the peer review process is sometimes exposed with regard to already published papers, but little is known of the other side of the equation. The social system of peer-reviewed science works against allegations of manipulation lodged by unfairly rejected authors, and, in any case, appeals go through the same editorial and review process and people that may have been the problem in the first place. Authors who complain can become labeled as whiners or delusional, and a reputation for being difficult in itself lowers the odds of acceptance for publication.

Reviewers themselves are a mixed pool. Many excellent academics and researchers volunteer for this important and time-consuming but uncompensated responsibility, but not all are fully qualified for the position or to review a particular paper, and many may have personal or professional axes to grind. these issues often show up in the recommended or required changes noted by referees, who lobby for plumping up their own work or positions or insist on qualifying caveats for things they don't like.

It is often claimed that double-blind peer review is the best process yet devised to insure both progress and the integrity of science, but the problems are not incidental to the process, they are integral. At it's heart, it is not an open process, and as such is very difficult to study or to understand its flaws. Periodically, problems are exposed or acknowledged, but aside from passing expressions of shock or dismay, little is done. Perhaps it is time the enterprise of scientific publication take on the harder task of a fundamental reappraisal and, possibly, the design of a better system.

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