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Paper mills pose threat to scientific scholarship

Paper mills, or businesses that produce and sell fraudulent, low-quality academic papers and authorships, continue to pose a growing threat to scientific scholarship. 

Students, scientists, and other professionals face pressures to publish content for a variety of reasons, such as padding up their academic profiles and securing funding or promotions. The demand to publish may lead these individuals to make use of research paper mills, which exploit this demand to the detriment of academic integrity and scholarly publishing.

In 2023 alone, more than 10,000 research articles were retracted. Nature, a London-based scientific journal, reports Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China as having the highest number of retractions over the past two decades. Data analysis shared with Nature also suggests that more than 400,000 published research articles over the past two decades used similar language and style to studies recognised to be produced by paper mills. The same analysis suggests medicine and biology are the scientific disciplines with the highest number of paper mill articles, followed by chemistry and materials science.

Many of 2023’s retractions came from Egyptian company Hindawi’s journals. Hindawi, a subsidiary of American publishing company Wiley, retracted more than 8,000 articles, most of which were featured in special issues, or issues featuring a collection of articles on a particular topic or area of research. These special issues can be edited by guest editors, making the publication vulnerable to peer review manipulation, exploitation, and poor publication oversight. Guest editors may lack proper training or could represent paper mill companies in some capacity.

Journal editors may also be bribed. Science, a peer-reviewed journal, conducted a 6-month investigation into bribery attempts with Retraction Watch and relevant experts. The investigation pointed to more than 30 editors of high-profile or reputable journals who may have acted in bad faith.

Detecting paper mill products can also prove challenging despite high editorial standards because they may be produced in ways that evade plagiarism or AI detectors. Although AI can be a useful tool for researchers, the improper and undisclosed use of it has contributed to the growing rate of fraudulent work. Paper mills use generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, to quickly produce fabricated text and images.

The use of paper mills not only diminishes the reputability and credibility of scientific journals, but it can also cost companies millions of dollars. The prevalence of academic misconduct, even amongst some reputable scholars, demonstrates the need to greatly improve publishing editorial processes. Potential improvement measures include employee training and stricter peer reviewer vetting. Many publishing companies and relevant stakeholders are currently pursuing efforts to improve paper mill detection, especially through technology.

The use of paper mills not only diminishes the reputability and credibility of scientific journals, but it can also cost companies millions of dollars.

A notable example is the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), a global trade association based in The Hague and Oxford that represents journal publishers working to support the integrity of research worldwide. Striving to develop better screening infrastructure for potentially fraudulent articles, STM launched its Integrity Hub in 2022, a platform that fosters collaboration across different publishers, including Oxford University Press.

Dr Dorothy Bishop, an Emeritus Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, has extensive experience in tracking fraudulent science and practices. She shared in an emailed statement that major publishing companies, including Wiley, Taylor & Francis Group, and Sage, have prioritised profits over academic integrity.

“They turned a blind eye to paper mills for a few years, despite people trying to get them to take action,” Bishop said. “They only started to take action when evidence of paper mills became so striking that it started to affect their profits, and shareholders got nervous about reputational damage.” 

Bishop added that those seeking to have work published should avoid journals that send emails soliciting for submissions. Likewise, she recommended that authors deposit their work on a preprint server, such as bioRxiv for biomedical research, to make it openly available.

Paper mills are quickly evolving and finding ways to stay in business. The prevalence of fraudulent scientific work poses real-world consequences for future research and scientific legitimacy as a whole. Publishers and readers alike should remain cautious of the content they read. 

Image Credit: Gery Wibowo via Unsplash

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