February 28, 2024

Tens of thousands of bogus research papers are being published in journals in an international scandal that is worsening every year, scientists have warned. Medical research is being compromised, drug development hindered and promising academic research jeopardised thanks to a global wave of sham science that is sweeping laboratories and universities.

Last year the annual number of papers retracted by research journals topped 10,000 for the first time. Most analysts believe the figure is only the tip of an iceberg of scientific fraud.

“The situation has become appalling,” said Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University. “The level of publishing of fraudulent papers is creating serious problems for science. In many fields it is becoming difficult to build up a cumulative approach to a subject, because we lack a solid foundation of trustworthy findings. And it’s getting worse and worse.”

The startling rise in the publication of sham science papers has its roots in China, where young doctors and scientists seeking promotion were required to have published scientific papers. Shadow organisations – known as “paper mills” – began to supply fabricated work for publication in journals there.

The practice has since spread to India, Iran, Russia, former Soviet Union states and eastern Europe, with paper mills supplying ­fabricated studies to more and more journals as increasing numbers of young ­scientists try to boost their careers by claiming false research experience. In some cases, journal editors have been bribed to accept articles, while paper mills have managed to establish their own agents as guest editors who then allow reams of ­falsified work to be published.

Dr Dorothy Bishop: ‘People are building careers on the back of this tidal wave of fraudulent science.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“Editors are not fulfilling their roles properly, and peer reviewers are not doing their jobs. And some are being paid large sums of money,” said Professor Alison Avenell of Aberdeen University. “It is deeply worrying.”

The products of paper mills often look like regular articles but are based on templates in which names of genes or diseases are slotted in at random among fictitious tables and figures. Worryingly, these articles can then get incorporated into large databases used by those working on drug discovery.

Others are more bizarre and include research unrelated to a journal’s field, making it clear that no peer review has taken place in relation to that article. An example is a paper on Marxist ideology that appeared in the journal Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine. Others are distinctive because of the strange language they use, including references to “bosom peril” rather than breast cancer and “Parkinson’s ailment” rather Parkinson’s disease.

Watchdog groups – such as Retraction Watch – have tracked the problem and have noted retractions by journals that were forced to act on occasions when fabrications were uncovered. One study, by Nature, revealed that in 2013 there were just over 1,000 retractions. In 2022, the figure topped 4,000 before jumping to more than 10,000 last year.

Of this last total, more than 8,000 retracted papers had been published in journals owned by Hindawi, a subsidiary of the publisher Wiley, figures that have now forced the company to act. “We will be sunsetting the Hindawi brand and have begun to fully integrate the 200-plus Hindawi journals into Wiley’s ­portfolio,” a Wiley spokesperson told the Observer.

The spokesperson added that Wiley had now identified hundreds of fraudsters present in its portfolio of journals, as well as those who had held guest editorial roles. “We have removed them from our systems and will continue to take a proactive … approach in our efforts to clean up the scholarly record, strengthen our integrity processes and contribute to cross-industry solutions.”

But Wiley insisted it could not tackle the crisis on its own, a message echoed by other publishers, which say they are under siege from paper mills. Academics remain cautious, however. The problem is that in many countries, academics are paid according to the number of papers they have published.

“If you have growing numbers of researchers who are being strongly incentivised to publish just for the sake of publishing, while we have a growing number of journals making money from publishing the resulting articles, you have a perfect storm,” said Professor Marcus Munafo of Bristol University. “That is exactly what we have now.”

The harm done by publishing poor or fabricated research is demonstrated by the anti-parasite drug ivermectin. Early laboratory studies indicated it could be used to treat Covid-19 and it was hailed as a miracle drug. However, it was later found these studies showed clear evidence of fraud, and medical authorities have refused to back it as a treatment for Covid.

“The trouble was, ivermectin was used by anti-vaxxers to say: ‘We don’t need vaccination because we have this wonder drug,’” said Jack Wilkinson at Manchester University. “But many of the trials that underpinned those claims were not authentic.”

Wilkinson added that he and his colleagues were trying to develop protocols that researchers could apply to reveal the authenticity of studies that they might include in their own work. “Some great science came out during the pandemic, but there was an ocean of rubbish research too. We need ways to pinpoint poor data right from the start.”

The danger posed by the rise of the paper mill and fraudulent research papers was also stressed by Professor Malcolm MacLeod of Edinburgh University. “If, as a scientist, I want to check all the papers about a particular drug that might target cancers or stroke cases, it is very hard for me to avoid those that are fabricated. Scientific knowledge is being polluted by made-up material. We are facing a crisis.”

This point was backed by Bishop: “People are building careers on the back of this tidal wave of fraudulent science and could end up running scientific institutes and eventually be used by mainstream journals as reviewers and editors. Corruption is creeping into the system.”

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