More than 100 articles retracted by two scientific journals this year

Is fraud on the rise in peer reviewed scientific journals? PJ Media contributor Theodore Dalrymple points to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that reveals some alarming facts about papers submitted to prestigious publications in the medical field.

Peer review is time consuming and it is often difficult for the editors of general journals, such as the Lancet, the New England Journal and so forth, to be familiar with the experts in all fields. The editors of smaller journals do not have the resources of their more eminent confrères necessary to find them, and they, the editors, are frequently judged by the speed with which they publish manuscripts sent to them. Scientists are anxious to be published as quickly as possible because others in their field might publish before them, and to be second to publish a discovery is about as useful as being the seventh best javelin thrower in the world.

Because of super-specialization, the authors of papers themselves are nowadays often asked to suggest referees for peer review of their own work, but this, of course, leaves an opening for the practice of fraud. In a modern variant on Gogol’s Dead Souls, some scientists have been caught sending their papers for peer review to non-existent reviewers, complete with a curriculum vitae and an e-mail address. The article quotes the author of a blog on scientific research called “Retraction Watch,” who said “This is officially becoming a trend”: an odd way to put it, since either it is a trend or it isn’t, official recognition having nothing to do with it. There are even companies in China, apparently, that will help scientists to manufacture bogus peer reviews. A new twist would be for the rivals of those scientists to pay for bad reviews. Everything is possible in this crooked world of ours.

The pressure on academics to publish, irrespective of whether they have anything to say, either for the sake promotion or even of mere continuance in post, is the soil which allows this particular weed in the garden of human dishonesty to flourish. Two large publishers of scientific journals, Sage and Springer, have retracted more than 100 papers in the last year because of bogus peer review. Neither the article nor the commentary from readers on it mentions that a bogus peer review does not necessarily mean that the science is bogus too, though it stands to reason that it is likely to be. But what stands to reason may not be the case, and as far as I know, no one has looked into this question.

Mr. Dalrymple makes a good point about the science not necessarily being bogus but probably is, otherwise why would a researcher go to all the trouble of creating bogus reviewers? How much damage does this do to the credibility of scientists? The reason those journals are less prestigious is because they aren't as trusted in the first place. That researchers are gaming the peer review system and finding an avenue to publish their bogus work should not detract from the vast majority of work by reputable scientists that is leading to astonishing break throughs in understanding and treating disease.

But as with anything else in life, if the science sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't.