In recent years in The Scholarly Kitchen we’ve had occasion to examine multiple kinds of academic dishonesty in the publishing world: “predatory” publishers who present unvetted research (some of which is literal nonsense) to the world as peer-reviewed science on behalf of paying authors; services that sell authorship and coauthorship attributions in published papers to people who had nothing to do with the papers’ creation; problems like citation cartels and peer-review spoofing.
About a week ago I found myself confronted by a new manifestation of this seemingly hydra-headed problem.
While conducting a periodic check of my email spam filter (the settings of which I don’t control, and which can sometimes be hyper-vigilant), I came across a message with the subject line “Book Review.” Thinking it might have been about a review of one of my books – and therefore with mild trepidation – I opened the message. I was a bit surprised to see that it was in fact an invitation to become a book reviewer for a “website for book reviewers and readers” that provides “insights and opinions on recently published scholarly books.” My name had apparently come to the publisher’s attention because I had written some articles indexed in Web of Science, and “in light of (my) professionalism” the sender expressed hope that I might join the enterprise as a reviewer, mentioning in passing a “great honorarium.”
I found this intriguing on two levels. First, I’ve been a freelance writer for years and I’m always open to hearing about a gig – even though the hours/dollars ratio involved in book reviewing is usually pretty low. But second, this communication had a weird fishiness to it, and since I have a well-documented morbid interest in deceptive scholarly publishing, that was what really piqued my interest. So I responded, expressing interest in learning more.
The sender got back to me quickly, explaining the model in more detail. She made it clear that the company she represented (which I’ll now simply refer to as The Company) was not in fact a publisher of book reviews, but rather an intermediary between book review authors and those who wished to get authorship credit for book reviews written by others. As I asked follow-up questions over the course of several email exchanges, the model gradually became clear:
- The Company would supply me with scholarly books in my area of expertise.
- I would write reviews of the books.
- The company would provide me the name of a “co-author.” The Company’s preference is that this person be listed as as the sole author of the review, but if I insisted I could be listed as the second (and corresponding) author.
- For each ghostwritten review I succeeded at publishing under that person’s name in a Web of Science-indexed journal, I would be paid an honorarium of $800.
Now even more intrigued, I asked for a copy of the agreement that I would be required to sign if I agreed to this arrangement. It was provided on condition of strict confidentiality, so I’ll abide by that agreement and won’t share any of its details here. (I’m also not sharing the name of The Company, given that some of the enterprises engaging in deceptive publishing practices have proven quite litigious in the past.) Here I’ll just say that the agreement laid out in somewhat greater detail the same arrangement that had been explained to me via email.
How is this different from the common practice (especially in biomedical journals) of “honorary,” “ghost,” “guest,” and “rolling” authorships? In fact, this practice is qualitatively quite similar to it. One important difference is that in the case of this particular service, the “ghost” author is presented as the sole author (or perhaps the partner of a single co-author), which is fundamentally more deceptive than when someone is listed as author #79 of 125 “authors.” Another difference is that in this scenario, the person receiving authorship credit is not only not the author of the article, but has no connection whatsoever with the actual author or with the process that resulted in the article. There is, in fact, no reason to believe that the person being credited with writing the review has even read the book under review. A third difference is the raw mercenary aspect of the arrangement: this model represents a simple and straightforward example of academic ghostwriting, undertaken for money by the actual author, with the intention of misrepresenting the published review as someone else’s work – a sort of reverse plagiarism in which the creator of the work sells credit for its creation to someone who had nothing to do with it.
How is this different from the also-common practice of ghostwriting books? It’s different because in this case, authorship is being used to confer academic advancement on one individual based on work done by another. If a movie star or politician publishes book that was actually written by someone else, the real-world impact isn’t the same as when a professor receives tenure based on a claim to have done academic work that was actually done by someone else. (This is really just a variation, specifically involving book reviews, on the Russian authorship-for-pay scam reported in the Kitchen last year by Anna Abalkina.)
Given that I’m not providing the name of the company involved and am not quoting directly the terms of its author agreement, how is this post useful to those who want to avoid this particular scam? My hope is that this piece will have three real-world effects:
- It will prompt journals (that don’t already do so) to require book reviewers to affirmatively state that they are the authors of the reviews they’ve submitted for publication. This won’t prevent fake authors from lying, of course, but it will put the “author” on record and should make it easier to obtain redress if the journal learns it has been deceived.
- It will serve as a heads-up to others who have already received, or are going to receive, solicitations like the one sent to me last week. (I commend to our readers the old freelancers’ rule of thumb: “If you’re being offered $800 to write a book review for a scholarly journal, something’s not right.”)
- It will notify other enterprises like The Company that their publishing scams are no longer flying completely under the radar, and that those of us who care about the integrity of the scholarly and scientific record are on the alert for them.
One of the great things about humans is how inventive we are. One of the depressing things about humans is how often we apply our creativity to coming up with new ways to deceive and lie to each other. Sadly, I don’t see any reason to think this will be the last new variation on deceptive publishing that emerges in our scholarly communication ecosystem.