‘One Third Of Scientific Papers Are Made Up’

According to neuropsychologist Bernhard Sabel of Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, a new fake-paper detector has revealed that one-third of scientific papers are made up.

When neuropsychologist Bernhard Sabel put his new fake-paper detector to work, he was “shocked” by what it found. After screening some 5000 papers, he estimates up to 34% of neuroscience papers published in 2020 were likely made up or plagiarized; in medicine, the figure was 24%. Both numbers, which he and colleagues report in a medRxiv preprint posted on 8 May, are well above levels they calculated for 2010—and far larger than the 2% baseline estimated in a 2022 publishers’ group report.

“It is just too hard to believe” at first, says Sabel of Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg and editor-in-chief of Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. It’s as if “somebody tells you 30% of what you eat is toxic.”

His findings underscore what was widely suspected: Journals are awash in a rising tide of scientific manuscripts from paper mills—secretive businesses that allow researchers to pad their publication records by paying for fake papers or undeserved authorship. “Paper mills have made a fortune by basically attacking a system that has had no idea how to cope with this stuff,” says Dorothy Bishop, a University of Oxford psychologist who studies fraudulent publishing practices. A 2 May announcement from the publisher Hindawi underlined the threat: It shut down four of its journals it found were “heavily compromised” by articles from paper mills.

Sabel’s tool relies on just two indicators—authors who use private, noninstitutional email addresses, and those who list an affiliation with a hospital. It isn’t a perfect solution, because of a high false-positive rate. Other developers of fake-paper detectors, who often reveal little about how their tools work, contend with similar issues.

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Still, the detectors raise hopes for gaining the advantage over paper mills, which churn out bogus manuscripts containing text, data, and images partly or wholly plagiarized or fabricated, often massaged by ghost writers. Some papers are endorsed by unrigorous reviewers solicited by the authors. Such manuscripts threaten to corrupt the scientific literature, misleading readers and potentially distorting systematic reviews. The recent advent of artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT has amplified the concern.

To fight back, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), representing 120 publishers, is leading an effort called the Integrity Hub to develop new tools. STM is not revealing much about the detection methods, to avoid tipping off paper mills. “There is a bit of an arms race,” says Joris van Rossum, the Integrity Hub’s product director. He did say one reliable sign of a fake is referencing many retracted papers; another involves manuscripts and reviews emailed from internet addresses crafted to look like those of legitimate institutions.

Twenty publishers—including the largest, such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley—are helping develop the Integrity Hub tools, and 10 of the publishers are expected to use a paper mill detector the group unveiled in April. STM also expects to pilot a separate tool this year that detects manuscripts simultaneously sent to more than one journal, a practice considered unethical and a sign they may have come from paper mills. Such large-scale cooperation is meant to improve on what publishers were doing individually and to share tools across the publishing industry, van Rossum says.

The International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, the Journal of Positive School Psychology, and the International Journal of Control and Automation are a few of the real-sounding, fake journals that are a part of the racket that Indian PHDs and professors are paying to publish in.

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