Science Journal Fraud: Paying for Placement

Yves here. Corruption has become the biggest growth business in the US. The latest example is the subversion of peer-reviewed research in top scientific journals. This isn’t as crass as pay to play in public pension funds, but the results are just as bad. Here, it appears that Chinese services are offering a whole menu of scholarly paper placement services. That does not mean helping you get your paper placed, but letting you buy a completed and not necessarily valid paper and charing you for getting it published with you as an author, with the price depending on the impact factor of the publication. The article also describes other scams, such as bogus peer reviews.

The Chinese services are so large scale that it enabled them to be caught out. But that raised the uncomfortable question of how many other vendors there are who operate with more finesse and on a smaller scale and have yet to be exposed.

By Marjorie Lazoff, MD, a Board certified internist with a clinical background in academic emergency medicine. She is currently a full time freelance editor and independent consultant specializing in evidence-based clinical content and medical informatics. Originally published at Health Care Renewal

On December 17, 2014, Scientific American published an investigative report by journalist Charles Seife documenting a new and curious form of scholarly publication fraud, For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. As an editor and supporter of evidence-based medicine I am both appalled by, and sympathetic to, how such widespread fraud could take place unnoticed.

Seife describes how he discovered the doctored writings:

The dubious papers aren’t easy to spot. Taken individually each research article seems legitimate. But in an investigation by Scientific American that analyzed the language used in more than 100 scientific articles we found evidence of some worrisome patterns—signs of what appears to be an attempt to game the peer-review system on an industrial scale…

…This is not a simple case of plagiarism. Many seemingly independent research teams have been plagiarizing the same passage. An article in PLOS ONE may eventually lead to ‘our better, comprehensive understanding’ of the association between mutations in the XRCC1 gene and thyroid cancer risk. Another in the International Journal of Cancer (published by Wiley) might eventually lead to ‘our better, comprehensive understanding’ of the association between mutations in the XPA gene and cancer risk—and so on. Sometimes there are minor variations in the wording but in more than a dozen articles we found almost identical language with different genes and diseases seemingly plunked into the paragraph, like an esoteric version of Mad Libs, the parlor game in which participants fill in missing words in a passage.

Another example virtually eliminates the likelihood of coincidence:

There is no such thing as a ‘Beggers funnel plot’…the proliferation of ‘Begger’s’ tests [were discovered] by accident. While looking for trends in medical journal articles, papers [were found] that had almost identical titles, similar choices in graphics and the same quirky errors, such as ‘Begger’s funnel plot.’

Seife’s investigative reporting revealed that China was the source of most of his “fill-in-the-blanks” research. Further,

Much of the funding for these suspect papers comes from the Chinese government. Of the first 100 papers identified by Scientific American [and listed at the close of his article], 24 had received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), a governmental funding agency roughly equivalent to the U.S.’s National Science Foundation. Another 17 acknowledged grants from other government sources.

Seife suspects that most research probably began as legitimate work without intent to deceive, but somewhere an author or service was added to help ensure publication through the necessarily arduous manuscript review process.

The culprit?

A quick Internet search uncovers outfits that offer to arrange, for a fee, authorship of papers to be published in peer-reviewed outlets. They seem to cater to researchers looking for a quick and dirty way of getting a publication in a prestigious international scientific journal.

Seife’s investigation goes undercover, 60 Minutes style:

In November Scientific American asked a Chinese-speaking reporter to contact MedChina, which offers dozens of scientific ‘topics for sale’ and scientific journal ‘article transfer’ agreements. Posing as a person shopping for a scientific authorship, the reporter spoke with a MedChina representative who explained that the papers were already more or less accepted to peer-reviewed journals; apparently, all that was needed was a little editing and revising. The price depends, in part, on the impact factor of the target journal and whether the paper is experimental or meta-analytic. In this case, the MedChina rep 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. The cost: 93,000 RMB—about $15,000.

Finally, the corrosive effect of this particular fraud on scientific and medical publication is real:

Publishers at the moment are fighting an uphill battle. ‘Without insider information it’s very difficult to police this,’ Clinical Endocrinology’s Bevan says. CE and its publisher, Wiley, are trying to close loopholes in the editorial process to flag suspicious late changes in authorship and other irregularities. ‘You have to accept that people are submitting things in good faith and honesty,’ Bevan says.

That is the essential threat. Now that a number of companies have figured out how to make money off of scientific misconduct, that presumption of honesty is in danger of becoming an anachronism.

Were this the only threat currently facing research journals today! Last month, Retraction Watch published an article describing a known and partially-related problem: fake peer reviews, in this case involving 50 BioMed Central papers. In the above-described article, Seife referred to this BioMed Central discovery; he was able to examine 6 of these titles and found that all were from Chinese authors, and shared style and subject matter to other “paper mill-written” meta-analyses.

Retraction Watch agrees:

It would seem that a third party, perhaps marketing services helping authors have papers accepted, was involved.

Problems with peer review are longstanding editorial fodder. For a description of another recent peer review scam, this one involving authors hijacking researchers’ identities, see the article also written by Retraction Watch editors and published last month in Nature.

On Friday, in response to requests by several publishers, The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) posted a statement on inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes

While there are a number of well-established reputable agencies offering manuscript-preparation services to authors, investigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses. Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious.

COPE recommends, among other things, the retraction of articles based solely on fraudulent reviews. Retraction Watch’s announcement earlier today of a MacArthur Foundation grant to help fund a comprehensive and freely available database of retractions could not have come at a better time!

Seife and Retraction Watch have documented new forms of published research fraud among third world researchers. Certainly the solution is not for editors and readers to suspect all papers from specific countries; there are ample instances of research fraud emanating from English-speaking researchers and top U.S. institutions. Research from around the world is critically important, particularly although not exclusively in the basic sciences, emerging infectious disease, and public health/epidemiology. Now that it has been identified, a common screening procedure for manuscripts at a journal can be adjusted to filter out this new form of plagiarism.

Sadly, it seems to me that fraudulent research of all types can flourish within a perfect storm of circumstances and factors: the globalization of science and medicine encourages non-or-limited English-speaking researchers to publish (or perish) in the highest impact English language journals; the proliferation of open-access wannabes, hybrids of every color and degree of sincerity, and other money-over-science journals and companies that rip off desperate and naïve researchers; a complicated, time-consuming and often author-unfriendly manuscript submission process; and journal editors who struggle with limited staffing and resources, necessarily arduous editorial processes, and the pressure of increasing numbers of worthy manuscripts deserving to reach the scientific and medical communities in near-real time. Research fraud is particularly destructive given traditional publishing’s ongoing struggle to survive the transformational Electronic Age; the pervasive if not perverse marketing of pharma, medical device companies, and self-promoting individuals and institutions using “unbiased” research; and today’s bizarrely anti-science culture.

Health Care Renewal is wonderful at calling out intentionally perpetrated health care events whose importance and implications can be debated, depending on one’s perspective and personal values. Here, I think, we have the reverse: there is near unanimity over the need to prevent fraudulent papers of any type from contaminating our research databases, as best as is humanly and technologically possible. There is also near unanimity among quality medical journals throughout the world, and internationally respected editor and publisher groups, to confront and solve these problems. The enemy identified by HCR is not always unrestrained greed or maliciousness. Sometimes, as in this case, the enemy is a cacophony of small circumstances and extraneous factors that could, if left unattended, invisibly erode something we all hold dear.

Without ongoing attention and support from the entire medical and science communities, we risk the progressive erosion of our essential, venerable research database, until it finally becomes too contaminated for even our most talented editors to heal.

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  1. global

    It has been going from long time.
    Univ,colleges make it mandatory to publish when there are no research facilities,no research students.The pressure on faculty is immense.There is just not time to read,absorb,think and plan research.Things must be done in short time.Government stipulates research MUST be successful,which is wrong approach to take in scientific studies.If professors don’t produce favorable research,their grants are cut.
    The academic journals have to survive as their only customers are academic institutions ,which themselves depend on govt grants.
    Plus,the elite journals actually keep out papers from not so elite institutions.Where the hell professors from unknown univ will publish?It is not always possible to publish in international journals.
    So this trend has emerged.
    Researchers PAY to get their paper published in any journal available.The research may not be top class because the institution where these professors work don’t have any facility and don’t have training in research.
    Regarding style of papers:it is standard.Nothing much changes in it.
    write abstract,introduction,protocol,result and analysis,conclusion and references.

    1. LifelongLib

      I remember being told years ago in a science class that an experiment was a failure only if it didn’t answer the question being asked. Whether the answer was positive or negative wasn’t relevant to judging success. Intellectually it could be just as important to know what doesn’t work as to know what does.

      I guess that way of thinking has gone by the wayside…

    2. David Lentini

      Conant’s warning of “publish or perish” has been true for years, and now it’s hitting new levels. The end is the destruction of any faith in the truth of scientific publication.

  2. c1ue

    Interesting and a good find.
    Thing is – corruption in the US is far more sophisticated. Give a good review for my paper and I’ll give a good review for yours. Back me on getting this article published and I’ll get you invited to that conference in Tahiti. Give my student a thumbs up, and I’ll give a student of your choice the same.
    Politics? Same deal. In China, they have to steal and extort directly. In the US, they trade favors whether plum positions for children, or awarding directorships, or swapping compensation committee ‘keepers’.
    The only possible antidote is transparency.

  3. ted

    Hmmm…while I agree that this is a serious challenge in the big profit driven world of academic publishing (PLOS1 charges about 3k per paper and Wiley-Blackwell is nothing but a huge rentier of academic work) … I wonder if the good doctor has spent much time in larger grant driven research labs? If she had, she would see that many (most?) papers are written by grad students and post docs, with the senior researchers simply affixing their names as the paper goes to peer review (have you looked at the authors lists for these things!?). Said senior researchers often have no idea what the paper might even report. And some authors have little or nothing to do with the research reported in the paper! So, the corruption here is a bit deeper than what one might find in China (note the zenophobic, racist element there … I can assure you that academic corruption is truly global, with the worst practices never commented on as they eminate from the US or Europe).

    1. Nell

      I work as an academic, in science (but not medicine). What you suggest doesn’t happen in our department, so I think your suggestion of endemic corruption amongst academics is over egging it a bit. There are pressures to publish, and I have heard of occasions were the last authors are the grant holders and had little to do with the published paper in terms of the conducting the research. The reason I heard of it was because the other researchers didn’t like it and left the lab as soon as they could. Academics who do that will get a bad reputation and end up being ostracised. Although, this may be different in medicine where status is a bigger issue.

      1. Marjorie Lazoff, MD

        My experience with basic medical research is similar to yours: the best labs are usually headed by researchers who are involved and supportive of all the research in their lab, and so they attract and keep the best students and postdocs. Those who pursue research as a career certainly encounter ridiculous obstacles and enjoy more than their share of “office politics.” But in my experience most researchers rightfully regard themselves as lucky to be part of an exciting, intellectual and creative profession that serves the public good, and they pride themselves on their honesty and integrity. Or so they tell me.

    2. bmeisen

      also hmmm … There’s some of the arch academic morality of the Seven Sisters here, maybe including a missionary’s noble concern.

      A standard distinction is missing: FFP. Guidelines for good scientific practice warn against Falsification, Fabrication and Plagiarism. The author here begins by suggesting that there’s something wrong with certain phrases recurring in papers. The evidence she presents is unconvincing. Authorities agree that strings of up to 4 words may be used without citation. Accordingly it isn’t hard to find multiple repeats of “To date, little is …” or “To date, little is known … ” or even “To date, little is known about …” Plagiarism with effectively criminal intent generally involves larger chunks of text than the author here cites. It is a serious threat to research and its discovery has become less of a forensic challenge thanks to the web and data mining software. Falsification involves the manipulation of research results, and I bet there’s some of that going on among the relevant personalities here though the author doesn’t go after it.

      The author here is most successful discussing fabrication and sale of authorship. These are especially critical issues among certain populations of researchers.There is a cultural issue involved in my opinion. The challenge is not just regarding authorship of journal submissions – it is also an issue for authorship of theses submitted for graduate and post-graduate qualification.

  4. Benedict@Large

    I noticed years ago that, particularly among Republicans, lots and lots of people held supposedly (per the media) very prestigious awards that came with quite substantial stipends. Then I noticed the reason for this was that, particularly among Republicans again, the reason for this seemed to be that they kept creating these new “prestigious” awards, and then giving them out to whatever lacky, even real Bozos, that happened to hit their fancy. I began to refer to this process as CREDENTIALING, in short making a persons work appear as though it deserves merit even though it is otherwise insubstantial and quite partisan. Obviously this “pay for placement” is simply another step on the road to credentialing, and I would suspect we’ll be seeing more and more of it as the boards of thee types of outfits are increasingly corporatized, with the excuse that this simply is a response to the free market pressures of making everything pay for itself.

  5. afisher

    It isn’t hard to imagine this happening in the US, considering that the GOP in Congress are complaining that the problem with Science is that there are too many scientists and not enough lobbyists….and by george, the GOP is out to fix that in 2015.

  6. George Phillies

    There appears to be a widespread cultural issue here. Of course, different places do things in different ways. I am reminded, years ago, of reading letters of recommendation for Chinese applicants to our graduate program, and noticing stacks of phrases kept repeating. “one of the five best schools in China” comes to mind. There actually are five best schools, but the letters came from a much wider range of places. “…return to China to serve the people…” also comes to mind.

    It turns out that there was a book whose title was approximately ‘The Manual of Practical English’ which in addition to the phrasing needed for, e..g, a Bill of Lading, included ‘letter of recommendation for student applying to a post in an American graduate school’. The phrase repeats were not so much plagiarism as technical assists on how to say things in English, given that your English skills may be limited. The process does, however, destroy the value of the letters.

    It is my understanding that some large universities — mine is not so large — have quit taking seriously documents and test scores from certain foreign countries, and rely exclusively on a personal interview process, which involves putting your people on the ground in those countries.

    It appears to me that the answer is that if you the “Journal of American Theoretical Astrology” — name chosen to ensure that I am not offending anyone — that you are obliged to ensure that your Editors and referees are in fact Americans. The risk of the other approach is seen above.

    With respect to the duplication issue, there is now software that does scans of articles against other articles to detect plagiarism. I have seen journals advising authors that their papers will be checked, and that if there is serious duplication the paper be rejected. The missing step is that the authors will be invited to explain why they should not be blacklisted.

    Finally, I find it less than comprehensible that you can build a great power on this sort of thing. I have occasionally heard fellow scientists aver that the Chinese scientific literature is unusable, in that there are some very good people doing very good work, but there are enough other people doing the things described above that you cannot rely on refereed published papers. The issue is clearly less significant with theoretical calculations than with experiment or computer simulations.

    1. kjl

      I’ve noticed the exclusive use of Chinese students is accelerating, with direct links and relationships to funnel them in. May I ask what the purpose of this is–low wages but unlimited visa issuance by academic institutions–more meek culture of not complaining?

      1. NoFreeWill

        At University of California at least they pay full out of state tuition (2/3x more) and can be threatened with revocation of their visa if they step out of line (this happened recently during a TA strike I was involved in). No matter that California taxpayers are paying for education for their kids that is increasingly used by those outside of California. Or that their English skills likely make them much worse TAs or professors.

      2. bill wilson

        From a friend who does research (apologies for the rather obvious stereotyping) – he hires Asian students for research work that is pretty standard and well defined (not much judgement involved). These students are there working on Saturday night (not at the pub) and put in long long hours without complaint. But he said don’t give them experiments to run that are not well defined or require exploring options. They have been conditioned to get everything right (that’s how they get the good grades), not to have things not work (as is bound to happen in research). The fear of making the wrong choice can be paralyzing if you don’t have experience with dealing with failure.

    2. Unanymous Coward

      I’m sorry, but those of us in the field of Theoretical Astrology are very offended. Theoretical Astrology is a subdivision of Financial Engineering which has a long and prestigious history as recorded in “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. Watch yourself.

  7. TG

    This is a serious issue, and it’s going to get worse. But we need to think of the main cause here: supply and demand. Science (like so much in a culture) depends on honor. You may think that increasing competition for jobs may increase people’s productivity, and it does, but only up to a point. At some level when even the most talented cannot earn a decent living by playing by the rules, well, people stop playing by the rules. Right now in biomedical research it’s dismal. In the past when scientists could not get funded to do research, they could drop back to teaching or work in industry or move to some other field entirely. Now competition is almost impossibly fierce, and the overall job market is so horrible that there is nothing to drop back to. ‘Do Nobel prize-winning research in five years or be condemned to poverty for the rest of your life’ – If that’s not going to increase the level of fraud, I don’t know what will. Remember also that this is not unique to science: this applies to all aspects of a society, and it’s why corruption is so endemic in the overpopulated third-world. Unless we address the core issues of supply and demand in the labor market, fraud will continue to grow.

  8. Marcie

    lee, this is rich but it makes sense to me. If the “Skeptics” spread misinformation and promote mainstream medicine over anything else even if alternative is better then it will obfuscate their mission which is to eliminate competition in healthcare. Should another criminal operation take over “Skeptic” turf this could turn out very bad for the “Skeptics” as everything they do will be questioned.

    So lee are you Steven Novella and here to promote your website? Have you ever taught a class at Yale or do you just rent office space from them?

  9. LAS

    So much of the training in science (at least in my program) is how to think critically about the published papers and to become knowledgeable about methodologies, measuring procedures (meters, lab tests, etc.), sampling procedures, research decisions made and the validation. It is a big part of a researcher’s time and attention, but has to be learned and done.

    Virtually everything in print has its limitations and methodologically introduced biases. What is chosen for print and/or goes unreported/unremarked introduces bias, too.

    IMO some of the best research being done is gov. sponsored, although it too can be flawed. Gov. cutbacks in research are very unfortunate. Sometimes alliances of lead investigators are formed / re-formed to better compete for the remaining government research needs. For other research, you really have to ask “who is paying for this and why?” because that will be a big part of the story and the research decisions made.

    My father, now deceased, who was a scientist during WWII, used to say you have to separate the science from the operators. Science is always exciting. The operators are persons, bearing the same flaws of human nature as anyone else.

    1. TG

      Yes, that is true. There will always be errors in published scientific papers and you have to filter them out.

      But not all flaws can be discovered by reading – there are things that can be hidden, methods that were not as reported etc., and that depends on an honor system. There is also a big difference between when the rate of fraud is low, and the rate of fraud is high and errors and misrepresentation are extremely common/the norm. Think also, what happens when the people reading the papers and trying to judge the quality of papers are themselves corrupt, and make their judgements based on nepotism and favoritism and political considerations… They may also denigrate the good science as a threat to themselves! At some point with enough corruption it all breaks down. Yes to human nature and its flaws, but the level of honor can vary in a society.. There is a threshold level of integrity or I don’t see how the system can work.

  10. larry

    This is not new. It is only becoming more endemic by being institutionalized and better organized. Have a look at Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by Broad and Wade published in 1983.

  11. peteybee

    Sounds like the use of professional ghostwriting / editing services to me. Not that big a deal, and probably a necessity when there is a language barrier.

    1. Marjorie Lazoff, MD

      There are many legitimate independent editors and companies that provide English editing services to basic researchers, Chinese and other nationalities. They are not ghostwriters. They charge hundreds and not thousands of dollars, the best ones are or employ experienced PhDs or MDs as editors, and they edit the work as presented without plagiarizing from other articles. They are needed because many (most) journals will immediately return a manuscript to its author if it cannot be easily understood in English by its editors and peer reviewers.

      The article above describes a different problem: (probably, according to the reporter) naive researchers believe they can get their study published in a high-impact English-speaking journal by paying thousands of dollars; in this case, Chinese service(s) targeting largely Chinese researchers. Apparently some researchers have gotten published using these unethical services, and that’s a second problem that journals, now aware of the scam from the investigative article, will hopefully rectify quickly. As described, the service tries to increase a study’s acceptance rate by adopting the key features and phrasings of articles previously published in a high-impact journal that matches the research topic.

      1. peteybee

        I understand what you’re saying but I think there’s more of a gray area. Can you really get a PhD with enough expertise in your field to fully understand your work, who is fluently bilingual, AND has a modicum of writing ability, AND grant-writing skills (aka smoothing-out-the-review-process skills), AND who is not one of you competitors nor will sell you out to your competitors who are trying to scoop you — to go over a significant paper for hundreds of dollars? I doubt it.

        1. Marjorie Lazoff

          There are a number of legitimate services and freelance native English-speaking editors specializing in science and medicine. Some offer bilingual translations but many simply copyedit manuscripts written by someone for whom English is not a first language. There are also science editors who specialize in grant-writing and other formal application processes. Unemployed or retired PhDs often consider joining this (perhaps now oversaturated) part or full time way to earn money using their skills and talents.

          No implied endorsement but from what I hear among medical editors, these are regarded as fairly reputable services; googling brings up many others: American Journal Experts (; Bioscience Writers (; Nature Publishing Group Language Editing (

          Editing a basic or clinical research manuscript is not very difficult for native English-speaking PhD or MDs with experience publishing their research or who specialize in a given topic, and who are comfortable communicating in formal writing. Among the better services, the editor can correspond with the author to answer questions and clarify meaning before the final edit.

          1. downunderer

            Very true. I’m one of those “proofreaders” and have been since 2002. My employer had connections from living for some years in Japan, and started cleaning up the unpublishable English of fresh translations and researcher-written papers. Then he started hiring others, and I was known to the professor he called for advice as a science teacher and lifelong science fan with good English skills. And so it went . . There was a hole in the market, because good translators who also knew their science were incredibly expensive. I know no Japanese, but I can usually take the output of a mediocre translator and make it sound like it should.

            I don’t doubt for a moment what I read above about fraud, plagiarism, etc., because I hear similar from friends who teach, especially students of several Asian nationalities. That seems to be cultural, and America seems to be catching up. But so far I have worked on nothing that looked fraudulent, though I have seen fads in language usage, presumably due to fads in teaching English and misguided attempts to make a paper sound right by using stock phrases. But those problems are *clearly* cultural, to the extent that Steven Pinker has written a diatribe that reminded me of several quite specific problems I see regularly (Why Academic Writing Stinks).

  12. nat scientist

    Both Science and Medicine were derailed by Richard
    Nixon’s policy of dealing with Whistleblowers developed as a Wall Street Securities lawyer. Independent truth could not be compromising Financial deal-flows.
    The WH tapes recall Nixon to Haldeman ” the public want to believe, and that’s what it’s all about.”
    The is the unknown known which must be preserved for the return to medieval control mechanisms, and Nixon, Kissinger, Rumsfeld, begat Reagan and Bush.
    This surpise beats Captaine Renualt’s in Casablanca. Prizes ought be awarded for disproving beliefs which is the true nature of scientific practice; but then the universities are too busy begging like church mice, and don’t do realpolitick.

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