Fooled by a fake peer review

By Bart Braun

A professional agency of fake reviewers fooled a Leiden science journal editor. He promptly gave full transparency.

The editors of this month’s The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology are chomping bravely on humble pie. Editor-in-chief Adam Cohen writes that the journal was forced to retract an article after it became evident that it contained a number of grave errors. Cohen is the head of the Leiden Centre for Human Drug Research and professor at the Leiden University Medical Centre and at Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research.
Academic journals use a “peer review” system to avoid publishing any articles containing errors: the editors send submitted articles to other scientists or academics who assess whether the research was conducted according to the rules.
The writers of the article in question had already suggested the names of suitable peer reviewers: distinguished experts at leading American universities. The email addresses had thoughtfully been added to the submission. The editors passed the article on, received a reply within a few days and decided to publish.
Very soon, they received a letter to the editor. An Indian student had taken a good look at the article and remarked “garbage in, garbage out”.
And so the truth was revealed: the email addresses did not belong to Ivy League researchers but to a Chinese company that researchers can pay to supply fake reviews. “The researchers were indignant when we got in touch”, recalls Cohen. “They said they thought the company would call in real experts.”
In hindsight, the warnings were clear: the “leading” researchers’ shaky English, the research conclusion that contradicted previous studies, the extremely rapid – in academic terms – response.
“We’re embarrassed”, Cohen admits. “But we also need to be aware that the editorial and review processes are not designed to combat fraud perpetrated by criminal organisations. Editors are not trained for police work, and even if we were, where would we start? We can’t tell whether the data has been collected properly, whether the medical-ethical committee really has approved the study or whether the patients all gave their consent.”
Who should do it, then? “The institutes. It’s impossible for the journals. But we should ensure that the right people review our articles and we’re now looking into that.” The editorial policy of The BJCP will remain as it is, based on trust. Nevertheless, the editors will only contact one of the proposed peer reviewers and, wherever possible, use email addresses at institutes.
“The transparency we’ve shown in this case has actually produced a surprising number of compliments, by the way”, Cohen adds. “People, strangers even, have said ‘That’s how to deal with it’. It just goes to show that you can make friends by correcting your mistakes properly.” One example: the Indian student co-authored Cohen’s editorial. “He’s very pleased to have an article in The BJCP,” Cohen remarks.

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