Paper Mills: Not Just for Students Anymore…

A recent article by Holly Else & Richard Van Noorden in Nature looks at a growing issue in the field of research: Paper mills.

The article highlights the work of Elizabeth Bik and other, pseudonymous, researchers that have identified more than 1,400 published papers that were potentially linked to paper mills. Of those, most have not been changed with only 370 being retracted and expression of concern added to 45 more.

According to the article, the issue is especially pronounced at Chinese hospitals, where physicians are often required to publish research to get promoted but are too busy to perform any actual research. This has resulted in a marked increase of paper submissions from the country, up fifty-fold from just two decades ago.

However, the problem is not limited to just China. According to Catriona Fennell, the head of publishing services at Elsevier, there is evidence of such paper mills operating out of Iran and Russia as well.

At a Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) forum in September, Bik spoke about the issue and said that the issue required publishers to be more aggressive when reviewing papers, including asking for raw data from those seeking publication.

However, Bik acknowledges that those steps are not foolproof and may lead to something of an arms race where journals work to find ways to detect and stop the publication of fake science and the paper mills continuously step up their game to get around those measures.

Though this may seem like an odd problem for the world of academic publishing, it’s far from new. As far back as 2007 there were efforts to track this industry and it grew rapidly, reaching $150 million by 2009. However, the recent work indicates that, not only is it a growing industry, but that many such papers are slipping through the cracks and getting published, including in reputable journals.

Worst of all, it dovetails with another well-known problem to ensure that fake science will always have a home.

Fake Journals, Fake Papers

The issue of paper mills isn’t an isolated phenomenon. For years, academic publishing has been battling the issue of predatory journals, which are fake journals that will agree to publish almost anything… for a fee.

These journals are often very sneaky and have official-sounding names, sometimes going as far as to steal another journal’s name and URL

The reason that these businesses exist is quite simple: Many would-be researchers are desperate to publish. Many schools, hospitals and research groups require proof of regular publication in order to obtain promotions or even just maintain their current position.

This has led to the mantra of “Publish or Perish“, which pushes academics to publish as frequently as possible, ideally with higher impact journals.

However, the desire of employers to constantly see publication does not always line up with the realities of research itself. This has prompted researchers to take a variety of approaches including breaking up one large project into multiple papers, adding coauthors to help colleagues and even seeking publication of the same research in multiple journals (duplication).

In short, the motivation right now to focus on the quantity of research, not the quality. That, in turn, opened the door for predatory journals and paper mills alike. This leads to a war that publishers must fight on two fronts: One against predatory journals and the other against paper mills.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that the scope of both issues are widely underestimated at this time. We only know the fake papers and the predatory journals we’ve detected and it’s almost certain there many more of both we don’t know about.

To make matters worse, as Bik pointed out, as processes improve for detecting fake science, so will the processes for producing fake science. This is not a war that’s going to be won any time soon, if ever.

Bottom Line

When people think of paper mills, they usually envision students paying for an essay or, at worst a thesis or dissertation. Very little consideration is given to the fact that researchers working in the field might be similarly tempted.

However, it makes perfect sense. The pressures that exist while one is a student don’t magically go away after graduation. If one stays in academia, they will face continuous pressures to put out new work and many will lack the time, confidence, skills, interest, etc. to do it.

As long as academics are forced to work in a publish or perish environment, this issue will not go away. If anything, it will only grow as the field becomes increasingly competitive. Though there’s been a lot of good work to reduce the effectiveness of paper mills and predatory journals, without reducing the demand for them, those efforts will likely be in vain long term.

Simply put, we must find new ways to grade researchers that reduce or eliminate the publish or perish environment. As long as that exists, there will always be a perverse incentive that will drive some to take unethical shortcuts that are dangerous to the progress of their fields.


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