Paper mills – the dark side of the academic publishing industry

Paper mills – the dark side of the academic publishing industry

Paper Mills are unofficial and potentially illegal profit-oriented organizations that produce and sell fabricated or processed manuscripts that only resemble genuine legitimate research.

Our scientific editors and partners decided to raise an important topic for scientists, as well as to make sure that the publication consulting company E-SCIENCE SPACE has nothing to do with “paper production”.

Current situation with fake non-scientific works

The topic of paper mills is now widely discussed by many stakeholders in the publishing field of scientific research. Paper mills are the offering or writing to order of fraudulent academic manuscripts for sale. Paper mills also provide additional services such as finding co-authors, submitting manuscripts, editing and controlling publications, and indexing articles in international databases. Very often, fraudulent structures that sell places for co-authorship or entire scientific papers imitate companies offering text editing or translation services. However, the cost of such paper production significantly exceeds the cost of real editing services. The frequency of publications originating from paper mills is unknown in the academic literature. Recent studies by research integrity experts has shown the appearance of paper mill products into the academic literature. Since 2021, journals have initiated mass withdrawals of articles. In January 2021, the Royal Society of Chemistry announced a number of revocations of its journals. The journal RSC Advances withdrew 68 articles because of the “systematic publication of falsified studies”, and Food and Function and RSC Medicinal Chemistry withdrew one article each. All of these articles were submitted by authors from Chinese hospitals, had common structures and templates, and are supposed to have been produced in paper mills. In December 2021, SAGE withdrew 122 articles due to submission or peer-review manipulation related to paper mill production. In February 2022, IOP Publishing withdrew 350 articles from two collections of conference materials at once due to the lack of peer review, citation manipulation, the presence of detected “forced phrases” and the similarity of the text.

The problem of scientists or universities?

The focus on publications in journals indexed by Scopus and Web of Science has become a trap in the system of evaluating scientific activities in many countries. National criteria require universities to increase the number of publications, and universities, in turn, motivate teachers to publish more to increase funding. Unfortunately, such a strategy, in addition to its advantages, turns into a win-win strategy, when teachers with a high workload cannot create high-quality works, but can gain financial benefits through dishonest behavior, while universities receive budget funding due to an increase in the number of publications. For example, many Chinese universities have introduced financial rewards for publications. Although it was found and the reverse situation when researchers associated with Chinese institutions, having received a grant, buy co-authorship to demonstrate the results of their work. Unfortunately, the difficulties in detecting fraudulent works and serious sanctions in some countries for violating academic ethics only contribute to the spread of dishonesty.

The main concern is the likely impact of the fake articles that are currently in the published sources. There is a reason to suspect that there may be hundreds, if not thousands of suspicious works in scientific circulation. In all disciplines, the presence of possible fake papers undermines researchers’ confidence in what they read, but in clinical medicine, these fake papers can be used to conduct new research, waste money, and potentially put patients at risk. One researcher said, “I teach all my students that you can’t believe everything they read in the literature, and that they have to verify everything they decide to use in their research”.

Another challenge facing the research community as a whole is the number of places where articles are currently posted. If a publisher revokes an article, its version can still be hosted on a preprint server, on a social network such as ResearchGate, or in a repository such as PubMedCentral. For example, an article that was retracted from the original publisher’s website and PubMedCentral can be found on ResearchGate. There is no article withdrawal notice on this site and it has 22 citations.

Submissions from paper mills influence all stakeholders in the process of scientific communication.

Researchers and Sponsors: Researchers are users of scientific literature, and they should be aware that the article they are reading in a peer-reviewed journal is true and based on real data. They use these articles to prepare their next research project, and in the field of medicine, systematic reviews analyze all published papers on a particular topic to provide recommendations for the best clinical treatment. For these reasons, both researchers and their sponsors need to know that the work they use can be relied upon. What can researchers and sponsors do to help create incentives to publish real works, rather than using services that give a quick but fake publication? Are there protocols that can be put in place to prevent paper mills from achieving their goals? Researchers can also be authors, and as such have responsibilities. They make declarations when submitting the work and sign guarantees on the integrity of the work. If they purchase authorship of an article or purchase an article from a third party, these warranties become void, but the authors are still liable.

Academic institutions and hospitals: Some of the incentives pushing researchers into the embrace of paper mills come directly from institutions including universities and hospitals. Can we work with these institutions to help create better incentives and possibly penalize the use of these services? In addition, institutions and hospitals should ensure that their staff who submit articles understand the responsibility for authorship. Editors, editorial teams and reviewers: The essence of the review process is that editors and reviewers can expect that the article is submitted in good faith from the researcher who took the job of obtaining the presented data. If this is not the case, then the additional work that the editorial team has to do may overload the process. Special preparation and training is needed to help reviewers identify such articles when they are submitted. We see from the data that paper mills refuse to submit articles to journals that systematically reject their articles.

The main indicators of paper mills:

  • Promise of rapid publication in a specific journal (it should be understood that the usual publication can last about 6-8 months, due to the fact that only peer review can take 3-4 months at best)
  • Sales of co-authorship. (Arguments can be many, and “simplify your job” and “There are some authors who don’t particularly need their articles after publication, and they can be passed on to you”)
  • Writing an article to order (The author is a “ghost”, he is a copywriter who will write you a “new scientific work” in 2 weeks. But we all know that such manuscripts are not a good idea. After all, in most cases, this is a reprint of an article in another language, or a rewriting of an old scientific work.)
  • Organization of special issues (This phenomenon is possible when a paper mill sells several articles (10-15 articles) in one direction on similar topics, and in order to speed up publication, it agrees with the journal on a special issue)
  • Ghostwriter (Articles produced by paper mills often do not contain real data, manipulate images, and have authors who are difficult to track, without public entries in ORCID or SCOPUS, among other key features that allow them to be identified as materials of paper mills)
  • The very assignment of scientific degrees and scientific ranks, other people’s scientific achievements and the presentation of false data. (This can be interpreted in a variety of ways. From selling an article with false data, to the moments when a paper mill agrees on a thematic issue, and offers its “guest editor – professor”).

As you can see, none of the items correspond to our work. To be more precise, we do not answer any point. Our team continues to emphasize that we adhere to all rules of publication ethics, as well as all COPE recommendations.

In order to carry out honest and transparent activities, we direct all our efforts to combat unscrupulous companies, as well as try to equal the world’s publishing consulting companies such as SAGE, Elsevier, T&F Transfer and others.