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Detectives are on the hunt for fake research papers: Nature analysis investigates the paper mill problem

Earlier this year, a Nature analysis examined the problem of paper mills – companies that produce fake scientific manuscripts to order – by evaluating papers publicly linked to them. Although not a new problem, the feature in Nature describes how it was brought to the forefront in a January 2020 blog post by research-integrity ‘sleuths’ who posted a list of published papers that they believed came from paper mills.

The analysis revealed that by March this year, these detectives had publicly flagged over 1,300 articles that potentially originated from paper mills, and that journals had retracted at least 370 alleged paper mill articles and added expressions of concern to a further 45. Experts suspect this may not be the full extent of the problem and there may be thousands more articles linked to paper mills published in the literature. There are concerns over the size of the problem and the detriment to science as a whole. Prof Jennifer Byrne, a molecular oncology researcher at the University of Sydney and expert in exposing flawed papers had this to say about faked cancer studies:    

“People die from cancer – it is not a game. It is important that the literature describes the work that takes place.”

A number of publishers and independent analysts are working to combat the problem of paper mills and prevent the publication of these submissions. Red flags that could indicate a paper mill include:

  • similar features in papers from different authors at different institutions
  • irregularities with western blots
  • similar titles
  • identical bar charts representing different experiments
  • identical plots of flow cytometry analyses
  • incorrect nucleotide sequences or reagents
  • papers from Chinese hospitals (the source of a high number of retracted articles)
  • non-academic email addresses
  • no raw data
  • poor English.

Publishers are also employing other tactics to spot articles from paper mills, including developing software to identify duplicate images and using analysts to detect problems with submitted manuscripts. However, even where these measures succeed, limits on data sharing between journals mean papers could still be published at another journal. With paper mills increasingly aware of the measures employed to stop their submissions and using more sophisticated methods to avoid detection, the fight against fake research is not yet over.

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What do you think – do journals and publishers need to do more to tackle paper mills?

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