Identity theft victims back legal action against journals

Leading scientists ‘appalled’ to find sham papers have been attributed to them say case against UK-registered publishers is overdue

February 2, 2023
Identity theft victims back sanctions on publisher
Source: Getty

Leading international scientists who discovered articles written by artificial intelligence that have been published in their name have backed plans for legal action.

In recent months, academics at leading universities in Europe, North America and Australia have been alerted to low-quality scholarly articles – often little more than a page long, probably written by a language scraping algorithm – appearing in their name in titles published by Prime Scholars, an open access publisher registered to a west London address. That office, where hundreds of UK companies are incorporated, is also home to other digital periodical companies whose authors are usually from India, the Middle East or developing economies.

In some cases, eminent scientists have even been falsely listed as editors of Prime Scholars’ 56 journals, which include the British Journal of Research, the American Journal of Advanced Drug Delivery and the European Journal of Experimental Biology. The deceptive listings and fraudulent papers are apparently used to add respectability to titles and lure authors from developing countries to pay what is described as a “modest publication fee”. Thousands of university staff have apparently published with the outfit, believed to be operating in India.

Yale University psychiatrist Marina Picciotto, who is editor-in-chief of the prestigious The Journal of Neuroscience, told Times Higher Education that her efforts to remove her name from the Prime Scholars journal Current Neurobiology, where she is listed as editor-in-chief, had proved fruitless.

“The idea that someone might come across my information on a website and then think it’s OK so they hand over money they can’t afford to waste to these scammers makes me furious,” said Professor Picciotto, who said she was “appalled” to see her name used in this way.

The low quality of many Prime Scholars papers – which sometimes consist of no more than a summary of a scientific idea, or even an invitation to a conference – means that many scientists contacted by THE were prepared to ignore the impersonation of their work. However, others believed the fraudulent papers could cause reputational damage in the long term, particularly as robot-written papers, usually based on genuine preprints, become more convincing and sophisticated.

“It was a bit of a scary experience, even though I am quite confident that most colleagues will probably realise quickly that the paper cannot have been written by me,” explained Janina Steinert, assistant professor of global health at the Technical University of Munich.

“Being a tenure-track professor, I am under quite a lot of publication pressure, and my concern was that some colleagues or reviewers could possibly interpret this as me trying to boost the number of my publications or citations through fake papers,” added Dr Steinert, whose attempts to remove the fake paper in her name were also unsuccessful.

In her case, the fact that Prime Scholars listed her previous institution in her byline – as it does with other impersonated authors – meant her current employer was not allowed to take action because it was not “specifically affected”, explained Dr Steinert, who said her former employer argued she would need to take the case forward as an individual.

Matt Hodgkinson, research integrity manager at the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO), said it would consider coordinating action against the publisher in partnership with affected authors because the identity theft could pose a reputational risk to UK science – a move supported by scholars contacted by THE.

“Questionable journals can cause harm in many ways, such as making it harder to distinguish what is legitimate research assessed by peer review, while there are risks to researchers if they become ensnared by their journals, even without their knowledge,” said Mr Hodgkinson, who said UKRIO might seek to work with trading standards and universities to shut down such companies.

Dorothy Bishop, emeritus professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, who has researched the rise of Prime Scholars – which did not respond to THE’s request for comment – said that the mass identity theft had gone largely unnoticed because the fake journals were “usually careful to slightly change email addresses” or created “impossible academic affiliations”.

The publisher had probably generated many articles through AI and “poorly paid students who don’t have much knowledge or imagination”, said Professor Bishop, who added that the tedium of this task might explain why patently fictional bylines including William Shakespeare, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and William Faulkner appear in Prime Scholars titles.

“I guess we should be grateful that the people doing this are either grossly incompetent or have a sense of humour as it makes it much easier to spot that it is fake,” she said.

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