Spoofing Peer Review: Sock Puppets Publish or Perish

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Academic research is the lifeblood of Pacific Standard, and without getting too high and mighty, its rigor is really important to us. So imagine the distress we feel seeing that the system for handling the peer-review process at Elsevier, one of the globe’s major academic publishers – they call themselves “the world’s leading provider of science and health information”—has had fake reviews inserted.

As explained at the journals which retracted the papers with spoofed reviews:

A referee’s report on which the editorial decision was made was found to be falsified. The referee’s report was submitted under the name of an established scientist who was not aware of the paper or the report, via a fictitious [Elsevier Editorial System] account. Because of the submission of a fake, but well-written and positive referee’s report, the Editor was misled into accepting the paper based upon the positive advice of what he assumed was a well-known expert in the field. This represents a clear violation of the fundamentals of the peer-review process, our publishing policies, and publishing ethics standards. The authors of this paper have been offered the option to re-submit their paper for legitimate peer review.

While this might seem a fairly arcane transgression, the excellent website Retraction Watch notes that this isn’t an isolated instance:

For several months now, we’ve been reporting on variations on a theme: Authors submitting fake email addresses for potential peer reviewers, to ensure positive reviews. In August, for example, we broke the story of a Hyung-In Moon, who has now retracted 24 papers published by Informa because he managed to do his own peer review.

Outside of academe, such sockpuppetry is common and perhaps even expected. Inside academe, it doesn’t help that peer reviewing itself can be a pain in the toochis for all involved.

The Chronicle of Higher Education tackled the subject of spoofed reviews in September, dubbing it “the latest form of scientific fraud.” Posting fake reviews takes some effort and ingenuity, especially given that having been bitten before, publishers--including Elsevier--have tightened up on their security. But given the importance of prestige and credibility in the world of higher education, the perils being caught hijacking peer-review seem greater than the benefits of adding another line to your CV (and especially since there are “vanity” journals out there with very low bars to publications as it is …).

And yet, it happens. To cite the Chronicle’s article:

Pressure on both authors and journal editors is a major factor in this new type of fraud, observers say. Authors need publications to advance their careers, and as grant money and the job market tighten, some appear willing to lie. "I think this is probably on the rise, but we don't really know the extent," [Laura Schmidt, publisher in charge of mathematics journals at Elsevier] said.