Pressure to publish scientific papers at Chinese universities may explain why more researchers are creating fake peer reviewers to assess their work, a new study suggests.
Analysing the growing number of retractions resulting from “faked peer reviews”, researchers found exactly three-quarters of articles pulled from academic journals over the past four years came from China-based researchers.
Manufacturing a fake peer review and reviewer may seem like a highly complex form of academic fraud, but it is relatively easy to do, as researchers are often asked by journals to recommend a preferred reviewer, explains the study, titled “Characteristics of retractions related to fake peer reviews”, which was published in the BMJ-run Postgraduate Medical Journal in September.
Editors of low-impact journals, where the offending articles were published, were often unable to check the credentials of those recommended peer reviewers or find suitably qualified alternatives, says the paper by Xingshu Qi, Han Deng and Xiaozhong Guo, researchers based at the General Hospital of Shenyang Military Area, in northeast China.
Publishers of higher-impact journals were less likely to fall for fake peer review scams thanks to their larger pool of trusted reviewers, the paper adds.
While the fake peer review remained a relatively rare occurrence – just 250 retractions were identified by the Retraction Watch website between 2012 and 2015 – the number of retractions peaked in 2015, up from about 40 in 2012 to almost 160 in 2015.
With the largest number of retractions for fake peer review-related retractions coming from China, the authors speculate that the “current national conditions” in which “the Chinese government has provided researchers greater levels of funding and awards for conducting scientific research” may have contributed to the “unexpected phenomenon”.
“Researchers are more eager to publish, but they are less aware of publishing ethics,” the paper says.
Greater efforts by China’s government and scientific bodies to root out academic misconduct and encourage publishing ethics may help to remedy the problem, the study says.
Several funding bodies, including the Chinese ministries of health and education, published a guide in December 2015 that proposed that five publishing offences – ghostwriting, ghost submitting, ghost revising, fake peer review and false authorship – should be completely forbidden.
Viewed in the context of China’s “fast-developing” higher education system, the number of retractions indicated that “only a very low proportion” of Chinese scholars have committed academic misconduct, the paper adds.
Academic journal publishers had started to recognise the “potential flaws in the peer-review system”, with some abandoning the practice of recommended peer reviewers, thanks to the media exposure of such retractions, the paper adds.
“Retractions due to faked peer reviews have been increasingly recognised by journal editors and [such misconduct] will disappear in future,” it concludes.