The publisher Elsevier, which carried the papers in three of its journals, said someone had obtained logon details for journal editors and the reviews had been submitted under the name of established scientists without their knowledge.
According to the retraction notices, which recently appeared in Optics & Laser Technology, the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications and Experimental Parasitology, “because of the submission of a fake but well-written and positive referee’s report, the editor was misled into accepting the paper”.
In a post on the Elsevier Connect website, the publisher’s vice-president of global corporate relations, Tom Reller, says the fraud came to light after one of the journals’ editors alerted the publisher that reviewers for two of his assigned submissions had not been invited by him.
Asked how editors had accepted papers on the basis of reviews they had not commissioned, Mr Reller pointed to the volume of reviews they process: “The default approach is that reviewers are honest, plus an editor may not always immediately recognise a name they sent a review out to: some of those names may have been referred to them, or come from a list of recommendations.”
He said an investigation into the identity of the fraudster was continuing and he was unable to speculate whether there was any connection with the authors of the papers.
The Retraction Watch website, which first reported the story, said the authors of the papers hail from China, India, Iran and Turkey. Mr Reller said other nations were also involved.
Fake reviews were a growing problem that Elsevier was addressing with “a significant amount of resources”, said Mr Reller. “But no matter how strong we make protocols and controls, there is always a…role for editors and publishers to flag when something looks out of line.
“The reality is that hacking and spoofing can and will occur. [But] we acted quickly, the impact is minimal and we have taken the necessary steps to eliminate the threat posed - at least through this method.”