The academic publishing industry has been rocked by scandals in recent years, most of them uncovered by outsiders. But the latest comes from an internal probe: A 14-month investigation by the publisher SAGE has uncovered a fake peer-review scam involving hundreds of fraudulent and assumed identities. A total of 60 research articles published over the past 4 years in the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC) are being retracted. SAGE concludes that the scam was orchestrated—possibly alone—by one physicist, Peter Chen, at the National Pingtung University of Education (NPUE) in Taiwan. But what ultimately made the scam possible, ScienceInsider has learned, was a lax editorial policy at the journal.
The story broke 8 July at Retraction Watch, but the first hint of a conspiracy emerged in May of last year, says Daniel Sherman, head of public affairs at SAGE. “An author (later confirmed to be an innocent party) contacted SAGE after receiving two suspicious e-mails from individuals related to a paper he had submitted to JVC.” The senders claimed to be university-based scientists but were using Google Gmail accounts. By directly contacting the scientists via their official university e-mail accounts, SAGE investigators discovered that the identity of at least one of the scientists had been stolen—that researcher did not have a Gmail account. (SAGE is not revealing the names of the people involved.)
Over the rest of 2013, SAGE investigators quietly followed the trail. They discovered that the assumed identity and Gmail accounts had been used many other times in ScholarOne, SAGE’s online manuscript submission system, and the reviewers and co-authors for those papers were also attached to suspicious e-mail addresses. Sherman says. “We also checked the wording of reviews written by those individuals, as well as the time it took to complete the review,” he says, which in some cases amounted to “a few minutes.”
The network of JVC papers that emerged was incestuous, with the same small group of authors reviewing each other’s work and appearing together as co-authors. By the end of the year, the investigators had a list of 130 e-mail addresses associated with 60 papers, with one scientist as co-author on all of them: Chen-Yuan Chen of NPUE, who goes by “Peter.” When SAGE sent an e-mail to all 130 e-mail addresses requesting that the authors confirm their identity, none responded. “The authors were contacted again by SAGE in May 2014 to inform them that their papers would be retracted in the July 2014 issue,” says Sherman, but again none responded. According to SAGE’s official statement, Chen resigned from NPUE in February. Neither Chen nor officials at NPUE responded to e-mails from ScienceInsider
How was it possible for a scientist to become the sole reviewer on dozens of his own papers? The answer appears to be that Chen was allowed to nominate his own reviewers, who were not vetted by JVC, a journal long led by Editor-in-Chief Ali Nayfeh, a professor emeritus of physics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. “In the majority of these papers ‘preferred reviewers’ only were used,” Sherman says, referring to an option made available to SAGE authors when they submit papers. “It is a very common practice across the industry for peer-reviewed journals to allow authors to nominate suggested reviewers. … Editors often find the recommendations helpful, especially for submissions on specialized and niche areas of research.” The lack of vetting, however, meant that JVC violated SAGE’s editorial guidelines, Sherman says. (Like SAGE, the editorial policy at Science is to allow authors to recommend reviewers but to never rely solely upon them. “Editors at Science journals generally use author suggestions as reviewers only if they have independent info that the reviewer is appropriate and likely to give an unbiased review,” according to a statement issued by the journal’s editors.)
“In order to ensure that we continue to be compliant with the highest standards of peer-review and publication across the board, SAGE is currently conducting an additional review of our guidance to editors and authors to ensure that it is clear,” Sherman says. The practice of allowing authors to submit preferred reviewers will continue at SAGE’s 700 journals, he said.
Nayfeh has resigned as editor of JVC, which is now being run by a group of 30 editors, most of whom were associate or advisory editors. Nayfeh did not respond to e-mails. The secretary of his university department told Science that he had moved to Jordan.
*Update, 14 July, 6:04 p.m.: The fallout continues. As reported by Retraction Watch, Taiwan’s minister of education, Chiang Wei-ling, has now resigned. His name appeared on five of the 60 retracted papers from the Journal of Vibration and Control. Chiang claims to not be involved with the conspiracy, but is resigning “to uphold his own reputation and avoid unnecessary disturbance of the work of the education ministry.”