One of the largest publishers of scientific journals is retracting 60 papers after an internal investigation found that they had been part of an orchestrated ring of fraud. In a statement released last week, Sage Publications said that it had uncovered a series of papers published in the Journal of Vibration and Control between 2010 and 2014 that had been sent to be peer reviewed by people using false identities. Sage believes that the ring is centered on the work of Peter Chen, from the National Pingtung University of Education, and potentially others from his university.
Chen resigned his position amid the investigation
In a statement to Retraction Watch, Sage explains that it uncovered at least 130 email accounts used to circumvent its system of peer review. Journals of high repute require that scientific papers are reviewed for consistency by a separate group of researchers working in a relevant field before publication. Traditionally, who is reviewing a paper is kept anonymous, but Vox points out that some smaller journals will accept suggestions on who should review a paper in cases where a field is tiny enough that it may be difficult to find someone properly qualified. That's seemingly what happened here, with Chen and possibly others alleged to have created fake email addresses for reviewers — at least one of which was found to be Chen himself.
Though the papers weren't all authored by Chen, Vox notes that those papers may still have have cited Chen's work, boosting his profile. Chen resigned from his position at the National Pingtung University of Education in February, in the middle of the 14-month-long investigation. The editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vibration and Control also resigned his position in May. Altogether, it sounds as though the journal was sloppy in its vetting of reviewers, and Sage says that it will "continue to introduce new measures" to protect the peer-review process.
Retractions because of fraud and unethical conduct are uncommon as a whole, but they're a notable tarnish when they occur. Last year, an investigation into open-access journals found that more than 100 of them were willing to accept and publish a completely bogus paper. More than anything, it appears to be that select journals are not ensuring that papers go through a robust process of peer review — intentionally or otherwise — leading to these mishaps.