One evening in June 2023, Nicholas Wise, a fluid dynamics researcher at the University of Cambridge who moonlights as a scientific fraud buster, was digging around on shady Facebook groups when he came across something he had never seen before. Wise was all too familiar with offers to sell or buy author slots and reviews on scientific papers—the signs of a busy paper mill. Exploiting the growing pressure on scientists worldwide to amass publications even if they lack resources to undertake quality research, these furtive intermediaries by some accounts pump out tens or even hundreds of thousands of articles every year. Many contain made-up data; others are plagiarized or of low quality. Regardless, authors pay to have their names on them, and the mills can make tidy profits.
But what Wise was seeing this time was new. Rather than targeting potential authors and reviewers, someone who called himself Jack Ben, of a firm whose Chinese name translates to Olive Academic, was going for journal editors—offering large sums of cash to these gatekeepers in return for accepting papers for publication.
“Sure you will make money from us,” Ben promised prospective collaborators in a document linked from the Facebook posts, along with screenshots showing transfers of up to $20,000 or more. In several cases, the recipient’s name could be made out through sloppy blurring, as could the titles of two papers. More than 50 journal editors had already signed on, he wrote. There was even an online form for interested editors to fill out.
“Jackpot!” Wise thought, and then, “Oh geez, I’m going to have to report this.”
At least tens of millions of dollars flow to the paper mill industry each year, estimates Matt Hodgkinson of the independent charity UK Research Integrity Office, which offers support to further good research practices, who is also a council member at the nonprofit Committee on Publication Ethics. Publishers and journals, recognizing the threat, have beefed up their research integrity teams and retracted papers, sometimes by the hundreds. They are investing in ways to better spot third-party involvement, such as screening tools meant to flag bogus papers.
So cash-rich paper mills have evidently adopted a new tactic: bribing editors and planting their own agents on editorial boards to ensure publication of their manuscripts. An investigation by Science and Retraction Watch, in partnership with Wise and other industry experts, identified several paper mills and more than 30 editors of reputable journals who appear to be involved in this type of activity. Many were guest editors of special issues, which have been flagged in the past as particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are edited separately from the regular journal. But several were regular editors or members of journal editorial boards. And this is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Hodgkinson recalls hearing one publisher say it “had to sack 300 editors for manipulative behavior.” He adds, “These are organized crime rings that are committing large-scale fraud.” [Continue reading…]