Paper Mills: A Rising Concern in the Academic Community

A good publication record is one of the essential criteria for promotion, becoming a faculty member, and earning grants for future projects. The pressure to publish more articles leads the researchers towards engagement in unethical practices, such as buying fake research papers. Academic fraud, including data distortion, image manipulation, and fake peer review, has plagued the prospect of research for years. Despite strict precautions and care, research misconduct and academic errors are found in manuscripts accepted by publishing houses, such as Taylor and Francis, Wiley, and Nature. In addition to concerns about plagiarism, ethical issues, and authorship conflicts, the scientific community also has to deal with the manipulation of manuscripts by the “paper mills”.

Paper mills: What are fake scientific papers ?

What is a Paper Mill?

Paper mills are potentially illegal organizations that sell fake scientific manuscripts produced by ghostwriters on demand. Researchers who need publications to advance their careers or to meet organizational standards for promotion use purchased manuscripts. This service is completely profit-oriented. Researchers pay large sums to buy ready-to-present manuscripts. Their potential clients are researchers looking for an easy way to publish in international journals without really conducting research. Some paper mills have real tests that perform experiments and produce real data and images. In addition, several authors purchase this data and use it in various experiments.

Specific features of manuscripts created by article factories include a general hypothesis, laboratory solutions, organizational and textual similarities, and images that show evidence of copying or manipulation. We are going to review these issues one by one.

1. Manuscripts produced by paper mills have a set of patterns that have unusual similarities in their text. They also probably contain almost identical phrases or are clumsily joined together. Consider the following sentences:

A. This research allows us to have a better and deeper understanding of the relationship between mutations in the X gene and the risk of colon cancer.

B. This research helps us to have a better and deeper understanding of the relationship between the X gene and the risk of cervical cancer.

Both of these sentences have slight differences in word order. The authors simply put the names of different genes and diseases in the right places.

2. Although the images may be real images of cells, tissues, gels, and flow cytometry profiles, they can be manipulated to fit experimental requirements.

For example, the Western blot images presented in the articles produced by paper mills have inexplicably similar background patterns and peculiarly shaped bands. Similar backgrounds in the images repeated in the manuscripts indicate that it is computer-generated or copied and pasted from other sources. Gel images also do not have the spots and dots that are usually present in these images.

Guillaume Filion, a biologist at the Center for Gene Regulation in Barcelona, claims that several manuscripts have reported the use of the Beggers funnel plot, a statistical test that does not exist at all. In addition, it is not possible for several scientists working independently in different research laboratories to invent the same name for a chart.

3. Manuscripts produced by paper mills provide very superficial explanations of the methodology and analysis used in the study.

Concerns About Identification of Manuscripts Produced by Paper Mills

  1. Identifying suspicious manuscripts cannot be easy. Although there are several advanced tools such as iThenticate and PlagScan that detect plagiarized text, tools that can detect plagiarized or fake data are not very common. These manuscripts seem legitimate when examined alone. It is only after their comparison with articles written by different researchers that common patterns and commonalities start to show up.
  • Journal editors ask for raw data if they are suspicious of a manuscript. However, checking the reliability of data is a complex task, especially if analyzing data files requires specialized software. This process can be time-consuming and costly. In addition, it may not be possible to understand that the data has been tampered with until it is reviewed by an expert in the field. For example, you have to be a flow cytometry expert to judge whether a flow cytometry file is fake or not.
  • Tracking the corresponding author can be problematic as well since it is not clear whether the editors approach the original authors or the representatives of the paper mill.

Methods for Identification of Manuscripts Prepared by Paper Mills

Editors and reviewers are very careful about the articles that are produced one after the other by the paper mills. A costly investigation by RSC Advances led to the return of approximately 68 articles due to distorted research. The following are some methods that can be used to ensure that no fraud is involved.

1. Editors might ask the authors to provide the raw data for the results and images of the study.

2. Reviewers might want to clarify the identities of chemicals and reagents. They might also check that the identities are well disclosed.

3. The reviewers should check the validity of the research hypotheses and the tests presented based on the research hypotheses.

What Should Researchers Do to Increase the Confidence of Journals in Their Manuscripts?

1. Researchers should announce all the provided external results of the research if the experiments are outsourced.

2. They should reveal the identities of all raw materials, chemicals, and reagents used in the research.

3. Provide supplementary original source files in an eligible format (raw data/individual data points).

4. Authors should mention in the “Authors’ Contributions” section that all the data were generated in their own labs using fair means and that no paper mill was involved.

As a researcher, are you worried about increasing the number of your publications, even at the cost of losing the authenticity of your articles? Would not citing such articles mislead other researchers because of the manipulated results? Would it not result in preventing the development of rational academic thinking in science? Please tell us your opinions about this issue in the comment section.

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