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How do nonsense papers make their way into reputable journals?


  • Nature News article reveals scammers are exploiting the publication process for journals’ special issues to get poor-quality articles published.
  • Hundreds of articles have been retracted or flagged as concerning, with further retractions expected in 2022.

Impersonation fraud is becoming an increasing problem for journals. As outlined by Holly Else in a Nature News article, publishers have uncovered networks of scammers posing as legitimate researchers to gain access to reputable journals and get poor-quality (and often nonsensical) articles published – a phenomenon particularly prevalent for special issue editions. These fraudulent activities threaten the credibility of journals and have led to the retraction of hundreds of articles by top publishers, with the number expected to rise in 2022.

Special issues have been specifically targeted by fraudsters as they are often overseen by expert guest editors who work independently from the journal. A notable example was reported in 2020 by Springer Nature’s Journal of Nanoparticle Research, after scammers posing as eminent scientists tricked the journal into allowing them to manage a special issue on nanotechnology in healthcare. When examining the submissions, the journal noticed that most of the manuscripts were of low quality and/or did not align with the theme of the special issue. Subsequent investigation revealed that the guest editors had used fake domain names that at first sight looked like the real scientists’ institutional email addresses. Many abnormalities in the peer review process were also identified.

“All of the evidence points to an organised network that tries – in this case successfully – to infiltrate scientific journals with the objective of easily publishing manuscripts from pseudo-scientists or less-productive researchers who want to appear in respectable journals.”

(Editorial Board, Journal of Nanoparticle Research)

It is unclear why fraudulent organisations wish to exploit the publication process to publish sham papers. Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist who has helped to uncover fabricated papers in special issues, notes that the pressure to publish in academia may be one reason driving this phenomenon. However, Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky argues that these low-quality papers, whose titles often do not make sense, are unlikely to have long-term benefit for the academic resume. Whatever the reason, it appears that the practice is becoming more sophisticated and prevalent. In 2021, Elsevier and Springer Nature each issued concerns for over 400 papers published as part of special issues in certain journals, resulting in the retraction of hundreds of articles.

Elsevier and Springer Nature indicated that they have introduced extra checks and are working to develop computerised tools to identify and prevent attempts to exploit the publication process. We hope that all publishers consider the threat level to their journals and find ways to minimise the risk of the ‘special issue’ scam.


What do you think – should journals continue to use guest editors to curate special issue publications?

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