Papermills in Bioscience Reports

By the Bioscience Reports Editorial Team

A newly identified ‘parasite’

Perverse incentives in the academic progression/reward systems can sometimes lead to unwanted consequences at best and malpractice at worst. The scholarly publishing world has, over the last few years, been rocked by a relatively new and acute pandemic of falsified information being submitted to scientific journals via papermills. A ‘papermill’ is a company that produces scientific papers ‘on demand’, and then sells these papers to researchers who are using questionable means to obtain a scientific paper published in an international journal in order to get promotion/graduation, but do not have the time, funding or resource to actually do the research. It is not clear whether the experiments in the papers have actually been performed, and whether some papermills do have laboratories producing actual images or results BUT such images/results might be sold to multiple authors to represent different experiments. Therefore, the data in these papermill submissions are often falsified/fabricated.

Unfortunately, in June 2020, Portland Press’ [1] Bioscience Reports journal became aware that it had been targeted by falsified information being submitted to and subsequently published in the journal. This blog outlines what happened and our response, sharing our lessons learnt.

The alarm is raised

During the summer last year, an anonymous reader flagged over 50 papers in Bioscience Reports that had issues with figures (all of which had been through the peer review process) via PubPeer. This online platform for post-publication peer review enables users to comment and discuss scientific research, for a variety of issues including those relating to the figures of these papers. We immediately responded to the anonymous reader, who agreed to engage with us regarding these issues, and was able to provide us with insights on how they went about identifying the image problems. We began to see additional papers flagged for issues, including papers suspected of belonging to a papermill and papers with identical ethics statements. Leonid Schneider covered the problems that were being seen in his For Better Science blog.

The types of problems highlighted in these papers varied from direct duplications of whole images in the same article or different articles, to complete image fabrication. A variety of different types of figures were flagged too, most commonly Western blots, microscopy, and flow cytometry graphs.

Policy and process to the rescue

In the first instance, the editorial team, with input and support from the Biochemical Society’s [2] Publications Committee made immediate changes to our editorial policies and peer review process. A mandatory requirement was introduced for authors to include the raw data for Western blots upon initial submission; this enabled us to identify batches of papers with common features, indicative of a papermill origin. Portland Press has since rolled out a new Data Policy across all of its journals, making the deposition of certain datasets mandatory, and deposition of others strongly encouraged.

Secondly, a mandatory requirement for at least one of the authors to provide us with their current institutional email was introduced for us to confirm their affiliation. This posed some difficulties as many institutions, particularly in China, do not have institutional email addresses that include a standardised domain name. In this case, we ask for a signed letter from a representative at the institution to be provided. Following the guidance of the anonymous reader and observations from screening the papers already flagged to the Editorial Office, more rigorous image screening checks were also introduced at the initial quality check stage (when an author first submits their paper) as well as a second, more in-depth, screen prior to formal acceptance.

Given the alarming level of how adept these papermills were in generating false images, Portland Press approached Dr Elisabeth Bik, a research integrity consultant, to provide further technical guidance. Dr Bik delivered a presentation to the editorial team and the Editorial Board of Bioscience Reports. This presentation provided useful insights into how readers and ‘image duplication detectives’ are able to identify these problems, as well as advising on good practice for Portland Press to take forward.

Early on we knew that we were not the only publisher affected by this issue. In July 2020, the Wall Street Journal published an article on this matter, highlighting the scale of the problem. From the moment these issues on the relevant papers were flagged, we have endeavoured to provide transparency on our process. Of those flagged, 15 papers have been corrected, 31 papers have been retracted and a further 57 papers have been issued with an expression of concern whilst they are under investigation. Since this was first raised with Portland Press last year, we have rejected over 600 papers (as of the end of April 2021) based on image duplication, image manipulation and/or authorship concerns alone.

Staying vigilant

Due to our new protocols, we have seen a decrease in the quantity of issues being flagged post-publication over recent months. However, that does not give us cause for complacency. Image manipulation and papermill submissions are becoming increasingly sophisticated, so we remain vigilant in protecting the integrity of the scientific record.  The Editorial Board and editorial staff team of Bioscience Reports has learned a lot over the past ten months and will be continuing to monitor the situation in the journal, as well as across the publishing landscape. There is a growing need for publishers to be aware of the risks that papermills may come their way and be prepared to be more rigorous with their editorial policies and peer review processes. We are guardians of the published scholarly record and will continue to make changes to our processes where needed to ensure the veracity of content we publish. We hope this blog and the Editorial from the journal’s Editor-in-Chief and Deputy Editor-in-Chief goes some way to share our experience and provide opportunities for publishers to work together to further develop best practice.

Footnotes:

[1] Portland Press is the wholly-owned publishing subsidiary of the Biochemical Society.

[2] The Biochemical Society is a learned society that exists to advance the molecular biosciences, runs publishing policy matters via its Publications Committee and owns and self-publishes its journals via its wholly-owned subsidiary – Portland Press.

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