March 27, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Fraud Is Killing Science Publishing

Industrialized cheating is growing so fast, it’s becoming hard to know what is real.

If Nature is concerned about a growing threat to scientific integrity, everyone should be. Science has been the crown jewel of western civilization for four centuries, the fountainhead of presumably reliable knowledge. A pillar of this confidence has been scientific publishing. Newton, Boyle, Faraday and other heroes of the Scientific Revolution preserved the evidence of their experiments in books and journals. Peer review added more confidence that other experts could validate the results and repeat them if necessary. All of this is under a major new threat: the rise of “paper mills.”

The fight against fake-paper factories that churn out sham science (Nature News Feature, 23 March 2021). Fake publishing is getting so good, it takes hard detective work to find it, warn Holly Else and Richard Van Noorden in their investigative report. Like a stealth virus, the fakers have even invaded legitimate journals, who are now wondering if they have been infected. It began when journal editor Laura Fisher found a paper in her Royal Society of Chemistry that looked suspiciously familiar. It set off alarm bells and an investigation.

A year later, in January 2021, Fisher retracted 68 papers from the journal, and editors at two other Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) titles retracted one each over similar suspicions; 15 are still under investigation. Fisher had found what seemed to be the products of paper mills: companies that churn out fake scientific manuscripts to order. All the papers came from authors at Chinese hospitals. The journals’ publisher, the RSC in London, announced in a statement that it had been the victim of what it believed to be “the systemic production of falsified research”.

Nature considers this revelation “extraordinary” because journals generally “keep quiet about” this problem that has been known for some time. Failure to be transparent, though, only exacerbates the problem. The RSC statement warns, “We are one of a number of publishers to have been affected by such activity.” The virus is spreading, and the parallel to paper mills at “Chinese hospitals” seems uncannily similar to the origin of the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus in a Wuhan lab.

I am exasperated by the situation, and that is being polite.

It might seem predictable that a communist country like China would perpetrate fraud. After all, communist ideology excuses activities that empower the regime, and science’s prestige is a jewel in its crown. Chinese scientists, furthermore, are under tremendous pressure to perform. But the problem is not limited to China. “Industrialized cheating” is going on in Russia and Iran, too. Any country that exalts prestige over truth is susceptible. Authoritarian regimes set up perverse incentives for performance:

Physicians in China are a particular target market because they typically need to publish research articles to gain promotions, but are so busy at hospitals that they might not have time to do the science, says Chen. Last August, the Beijing municipal health authority published a policy stipulating that an attending physician wanting to be promoted to deputy chief physician must have at least two first-author papers published in professional journals; three first-author papers are required to become a chief physician. These titles affect a physician’s salary and authority, as well as the surgeries they are allowed to perform….

A thousand infected papers have been identified in a survey last year; investigators suspect there are thousands more. Last September, sleuths met in London to discuss “systematic manipulation of the publishing process via paper mills.” Else and Van Noorden point out some of the tactics of fakery. They sound similar to the practice of selling ghostwritten term papers to students. There are:

  • Firms that sell papers to researchers
  • Websites that offer to ghostwrite fictional research for a fee
  • Sites that offer to bypass peer review systems for payment
  • Markets that offer authorship of research papers
  • Third-party companies that sell research or peer review
  • Cash bonuses paid for publications, tempting researchers to take shortcuts
  • Authors posing with non-academic email addresses or fake credentials
  • Authors submitting the same fraudulent paper to multiple journals, so that even if one is rejected, the “zombie paper” can live on elsewhere.
  • Cases of plagiarism with borrowed data and graphs from other journals

It seems that these manuscripts are produced from common templates, with words and images slightly tweaked to make the papers look a little different.

The effects of these malign practices are “devastating” on science, one observer said, because people lose trust in what might be junk science. But can they detect it? When junk science becomes prevalent, legitimate research might be suspected of fakery, and fake research might fool researchers who believe it and pass it on. In some surveys, experts disagree on which papers were from paper mills or not. Journal editors struggle to weed out the fake papers they receive for publication. Sleuths have identified some tip-offs of paper mill fraud, such as poor English or clues that papers came from the same computer. As the fraudsters improve their deceptive practices, however, it will get harder to sift the wheat from the chaff.

The effects of fraudulent publications can be deadly. Some paper-mill publications contain fake information about cancer and could lead to voodoo treatments with no empirical basis.

People die from cancer — it is not a game. It is important that the literature describes the work that takes place,” [Jennifer Byrne] adds.

Fraud is infecting other specialties, too, including “computer sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences,” they say. Else and Van Noorden describe techniques that sleuths are using to detect fraud. It seems to escape their notice that such techniques require intelligent design theory (see Evolution News on “Intelligent Design in Action: Forensic Science” and also “Design Filter Is Best for Finding Liars“).

The authors warn that what the sleuths are finding in the paper-mill scandal may just be the “tip of the iceberg.” Some paper mills are getting better at hiding their deception. The perpetrators themselves are getting more difficult to locate. There could be tens of thousands of fraudulent papers out there already, spreading toxic ideas into the minds of honest but unsuspecting researchers who trust the bad papers and cite them in their reference lists. If unchecked, the paper-mill problem can quickly reduce public trust in the reliability of science.

Chris Graf, a head of research integrity at Wiley (a leading publisher of science) gave a chilling opinion of this systematic manipulation of scientific publishing:

I don’t think it should be understated, I can’t say how big it is,” he said. “We have very little information about the people or companies doing this. I am exasperated by the situation, and that is being polite.

Some sleuths see an arms race coming, where publishers increase their scrutiny while, at the same time, the fraudsters improve their methods of deception. Equilibrium may be reached when every paper lies, but nobody reads them any more.

Secularists, who almost universally believe in Darwinian evolution, have nobody to blame but themselves. For decades they have been writing about the “evolution of altruism” and other moral subjects as if they are behavioral outcomes of the Stuff Happens Law (recent example in PNAS). In evolutionary game theory, they describe moral qualities such as love, trust and self-sacrifice as mere behaviors that can be found not only in humans, but in apes and even in bacteria and slime molds. The game yields cooperators and cheaters, neither of which is “right” except as measured by the one in power at a given time. The goal of evolutionary game theory is to be in the numerator of the ratio; that’s all. 

In evolution, cheaters prosper. So who is Nature (founded in 1869 to push Darwin’s views) to root for the legitimate journals? If the paper mills make it into the numerator, Nature will have perverse incentives to join the “cheaters” – truth be condemned. Survival becomes the primary value. Evolve or perish! Publish fraud or perish!

When these lame evolutionary explanations are believed, it follows logically that morality and truth are illusions. The “evolution of altruism” idea is even self-refuting, because it implies that the authors of those theories are motivated by selfish genes and the goal of survival, not by any desire to tell the truth to improve understanding among their fellow human beings. A reader could not trust a paper on the evolution of altruism; it would be just a gimmick for the authors’ selfish survival.

Fraud in writing is nothing new, as this article about fraud prevention in medieval times indicates. Science, though, was supposed to raise the bar. Science was about discovering reality in nature, not just winning in court. One would hope that enough scientists remain motivated by the search for truth, to resist lies, and to share what they believe is true for the good of others. That’s what the scientists did in our list of Great Creation Scientists. They believed in a righteous and truthful Creator God, and ordered their lives by the Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Integrity is built into the Judeo-Christian worldview. Hear Dennis Prager describe the importance of the Ninth Commandment and building a society based on valuing Truth.

As we have said many times, science without integrity is dead. Nature and the sleuths trying to defeat the paper mills had better evolve some integrity real soon. They should ask their colleagues in the “evolutionary computing” field to find what lucky mutations will cause an integrity gene to emerge. If they succeed, they could make a vaccine with it and distribute it to the world as a gift. But wait; that would require the evolution of altruism. (Cue sound of short circuit.)

Final comment: At CEH, we have to be wary of fake science. How many papers have we run across that are products of paper mill fraud? Some of the evolutionary ones sound downright goofy. Some are so illogical they might as well have been written by robots or plagiarists. All a fraudster has to do is pepper the writing with the e-word evolution and it will most likely pass right through peer review and be published and echoed across the internet. In the final analysis, it probably doesn’t matter much. Fraud is fraud, and illogic is illogic, whether someone makes it up or an evolutionist really believes it. Our job is to point out the baloney and point to the truth.


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