Fake research papers could jeopardize drug development, academics warn.Photo: Westend61/Getty Images
Tens of thousands of fake research articles are being published in journals in an international scandal that is worsening every year, scientists have warned. Medical research is compromised, drug development is stymied and promising academic research is in jeopardy thanks to a global wave of bogus science sweeping labs and universities.
Last year, the annual number of articles retracted by research journals exceeded 10,000 for the first time. Most analysts believe that this figure is just the tip of an iceberg of scientific fraud.
“The situation has become terrible,” said Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford. “The number of publications of fraudulent articles creates serious problems for science. In many areas it becomes difficult to build a cumulative approach to a topic because we lack a solid foundation of reliable findings. And it’s getting worse.”
The surprising increase in the publication of bogus scientific articles has its origins in China, where young doctors and scientists seeking promotion had to have published scientific articles. Shadow organizations – known as ‘paper mills’ – began producing fabricated work there for publication in magazines.
The practice has since spread to India, Iran, Russia, former Soviet Union states and Eastern Europe, where paper mills are supplying fabricated studies to more and more journals as more and more young scientists try to boost their careers by claiming false research experience. In some cases, magazine editors have been bribed to accept articles, while paper mills have managed to appoint their own agents as guest editors, who then allow reams of forged work to be published.
“Editors do not fulfill their role well and peer reviewers do not do their job. And some are paid large sums of money,” says Professor Alison Avenell of the University of Aberdeen. “It is very concerning.”
Paper mill products often look like ordinary items, but are based on templates, with names of genes or diseases placed randomly between fictional tables and figures. Worryingly, these articles can then be included in large databases used by those involved in drug discovery.
Others are more bizarre and involve research unrelated to a journal’s field, making it clear that no peer review has taken place regarding that article. An example is an article on Marxist ideology that appeared in the magazine Computational and mathematical methods in medicine. Others are distinguished by the foreign language they use, including references to “bosom cancer” instead of breast cancer and “Parkinson’s disease” instead of Parkinson’s disease.
Watchdog groups – such as Retraction Watch – have been monitoring the problem, noting retractions by magazines forced to take action when fabrications were exposed. One study, by Nature, revealed that there were just over 1,000 retractions in 2013. In 2022, this number reached 4,000, before rising to more than 10,000 last year.
Of the latter total, more than 8,000 retracted articles had been published in magazines owned by Hindawi, a subsidiary of publisher Wiley, figures that have now forced the company into action. “We will be discontinuing the Hindawi brand and have begun the process of fully integrating the more than 200 Hindawi magazines into Wiley’s portfolio,” a Wiley spokesperson told the newspaper. Observer.
The spokesperson added that Wiley had now identified hundreds of fraudsters present across their magazine portfolio, as well as those who had served in guest editorial roles. “We have removed them from our systems and will continue to take a proactive approach in our efforts to clean up the scientific data, strengthen our integrity processes and contribute to cross-sector solutions.”
But Wiley insisted it could not tackle the crisis alone, a message echoed by other publishers who say they are under siege by paper mills. However, academics remain cautious. The problem is that in many countries academics are paid based on the number of articles they have published.
“If you have a growing number of researchers who are strongly incentivized to publish just for the sake of publishing, while we have a growing number of journals that make money from publishing the resulting papers, then you have a perfect storm,” says professor Marcus Munafo. from the University of Bristol. “And that’s exactly what we have now.”
The damage done by publishing bad or fabricated research is demonstrated by the anti-parasite drug ivermectin. Early laboratory studies indicated it could be used to treat Covid-19 and it was hailed as a miracle cure. However, it later emerged that these studies showed clear evidence of fraud, and medical authorities have refused to support this as a treatment for Covid.
“The problem was that ivermectin was used by anti-vaxxers to say we don’t need a vaccination because we have this miracle drug,” says Jack Wilkinson of the University of Manchester. “But many of the processes that supported these claims were not authentic.”
Wilkinson added that he and his colleagues were trying to develop protocols that researchers could apply to reveal the authenticity of studies that they could incorporate into their own work. “Great science has emerged during the pandemic, but there has also been an ocean of rubbish research. We need ways to catch bad data from the start.”
The danger posed by the rise of the paper mill and fraudulent research reports was also highlighted by Professor Malcolm MacLeod of the University of Edinburgh. “As a scientist, if I want to check all the papers about a certain drug that could fight cancer or stroke cases, it is very difficult for me to avoid the fabricated articles. Scientific knowledge is polluted by fabricated material. We are facing a crisis.”
This point was supported by Bishop: “People are building careers on this tidal wave of fraudulent science and could end up running scientific institutions and eventually being used by mainstream journals as reviewers and editors. Corruption is creeping into the system.”