Yesterday, our friends at Retraction Watch broke a story about Elsevier’s peer review systems being spoofed, leading to at least 11 retractions thus far. It appears that one or more people, yet to be identified, were able to become reviewers in the system using someone else’s name and a fake email address in order to give positive reviews to papers.
In the past few years, other journals from other publishers have also been spoofed. This is not just a problem for Elsevier.
There seems to be at least two ways to spoof your way into an editorial system:
- Offer a bogus identity as a potential reviewer on your papers, so that you can secretly become your own peer-reviewer
- Pose as a well-known new reviewer, but give a bogus email address, so you can do reviews under that person’s name, even if you don’t end up reviewing your own paper; chances are, by identifying areas of expertise, a spoofer would be in a position to review friends’ or competitors’ papers, skewing publication one way or another
As ORCID rolls out, it has the potential to also cut down on this type of fraud. In creating an ORCID record, you have to put in your email address. Integrating this into manuscript submission and tracking systems seems like a good way to prevent one or both of these tactics (although, creating a bogus ORCID record is certainly a possible work-around).
However, I always like to isolate the effects of technology by recalling what the system was like before the technology. In this case, when peer-review required paper, postage, and a physical mailing location, spoofing like this would have been much more expensive and difficult to undertake. Now, with email addresses easily obtained, cut-and-paste making plausible reviews possible in much less time, and no expense other than time, spoofing is a practical fraud.
At a meeting last week of thought-leaders in scientific publishing technologies, one of the themes was how editorial offices aren’t being served as well as they could be by technology solutions. This is perhaps one area to explore. After all, if intrusions into the peer-review process are occurring, we should build some alarms and defenses for our editors and reviewers.