Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Jay Flynn. Jay is the Executive Vice President and General Manager, Research at Wiley.
Research publishers are in the business of sharing information and solutions to the biggest problems that the global community faces – energy, food security, water safety, vaccines, and many more. With low public trust in science, the integrity of research publishing has never been more important. Unfortunately, that trust is increasingly strained by academic fraud, the most prolific of which is paper mills.
What is a Paper Mill?
In recent years, publishers have seen an increase in research integrity issues stemming from systematic manipulation of the publishing process. Paper mills are at the heart of this. The scholarly publishing industry organization Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) describes paper mills as “profit oriented, unofficial and potentially illegal organizations that produce and sell fraudulent manuscripts that seem to resemble genuine research.” Paper mills circumvent journal security by doing two things: manipulating identities of the participants in the publishing process, and fabricating content that gets published.
Journal security is thus critical for trustworthy research communication. Without it, paper mills and other schemes will continue to fill journals with fabricated content, and damage society’s trust in peer review and journal publications. The scale of the problem will only increase as technology, like generative AI, becomes more widely adopted.
The Effect of Paper Mills on Hindawi
Clarivate recently delisted 50+ journals across the industry for not meeting its criteria. Among these were 19 Hindawi (owned by Wiley) journals. Additionally, retractions across the industry are on the rise, as Retraction Watch reports.
In Hindawi’s case, this is a direct result of sophisticated paper mill activity. The extent to which our processes and systems were breached required an end-to-end review of every step in the peer review and publishing process. One takeaway became immediately and abundantly clear: the environment in which we operate has changed, and the research community – publishers, researchers, and the companies that provide services to them – needs to change with it.
How Hindawi Addressed the Problem
In September 2022, Wiley identified and immediately alerted the industry to paper mill activity we found operating at scale. Specifically, we found fraudulent outside editors that had subverted our processes and workflows, leading to a proliferation of bad content. This scheme hit Hindawi’s Special Issues program hard.
At Wiley we take full responsibility for the quality of the content we publish across our portfolio. We have since reworked the Special Issues publishing process to close these loopholes and protect the scholarly record. Specifically, we paused publication of Special Issues, alerted other publishers and third-party providers of the presence of bad actors in their systems, increased rigorous new checks throughout our publishing workflows, issued an initial 511 retractions, and introduced additional AI-based screening tools. We are currently in the process of retracting an additional estimated 1,200 compromised papers, and we are designing a new retraction process that will help us, and potentially others, accelerate and deal with this new era of mass retractions fairly.
While we have taken many concrete actions in both the short- and long-term, we know there is much more to do. The reality is that the methods bad actors use are increasingly sophisticated. Fraud migrates, and shutting down or securing one journal will simply encourage paper mills to seek another target. This is why publishers must work together and devote substantial resources to ensure the integrity of our journals and the content we publish.
Next Steps for Publishers
Publishers play an essential role in delivering journal security. We believe that we and our publishing peers must take these critical actions to protect the scholarly record:
- Increase our investment in both expertise and technology to support the early identification of unethical publishing behavior.
- Pursue effective and legal ways to share data about the bad actors who otherwise simply move from publisher to publisher, and expunge them from the tools, databases, and resources they exploit.
- Change the ways we work, including creating and embracing new systems, processes, and methods to eliminate fraud throughout the system.
Next Steps for the Industry
Publishers cannot – and should not – address this issue alone. All stakeholders in the industry, (including research integrity officers, funders, academic institutions, learned societies, and, crucially, third-party providers of data and tools) must collaborate to address behaviors that undermine research integrity.
A whole-of-system response includes working together to improve the bad incentives at work in the research evaluation system and the metrics on which it relies. In short, beyond doubling down on uncovering and disciplining academic misconduct, we all have a crucial role to play in modernizing the system itself.
Moving Forward Together
We urgently need a collaborative, forward-looking and thoughtful approach to journal security to stop bad actors from further abusing the industry’s systems, journals, and the communities we serve. We’re committed to addressing the challenge presented by paper mills and academic fraud head on, and we invite our publishing peers, and the many organizations that work alongside us, to join us in this endeavor. I see this as a turning point in our industry. We need to make the right decisions, together. Our future depends on it.