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Hacked Review System Leads To Fake Reviews and Retraction of Scientific Papers 67

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the too-good-to-review dept.
dstates writes "Retraction Watch reports that fake reviewer information was placed in Elsevier's peer review database allowing unethical authors to review their own or colleagues manuscripts. As a result, 11 scientific publications have been retracted. The hack is particularly embarrassing for Elsevier because the commercial publisher has been arguing that the quality of its review process justifies its restrictive access policies and high costs of the journals it publishes."
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Hacked Review System Leads To Fake Reviews and Retraction of Scientific Papers

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  • Publish or Perish (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crazyjj (2598719) * on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @10:41AM (#42260321)

    I actually went to grad school with a woman who later got caught doing something similar. There is a lot of pressure to publish in academia, even at the grad level these days (especially with so much competition now for the few tenure-track positions available).

    When I was in academia, there were all these promises of baby boomers retiring and the fields opening up to new blood, but all I saw was a profession getting more and more cutthroat, with fewer and fewer opportunities for any future. Ended up seeing some pretty questionable activities going on. One of the most prominent was the proliferation of smaller academic "journals" that were little more than conglomerations of local grad students and profs looking to publish their own papers under the guise of a supposedly peer-reviewed journal (with the "peers" being themselves and their friends). I wanted no part of it myself, but the temptation was there for a lot of my fellow academics.

    There is also the temptation to publish a lot of really conventional stuff that basically just takes someone else's work and modifies it slightly, or applies it to a slightly different framework. This is the academic equivalent of shovelware. Professor Hot Shit publishes some groundbreaking work, and for the next 20 years you get hundreds of knockoff articles from ass-kissing, unoriginal grad students and nontenured profs basically just parroting Hot Shit's work. Tends to produce a LOT of groupthink in academia (at least until the next Hot Shit comes along). At least 99% of the articles and papers coming out in my field fell into this category. You could actually be seriously be penalized for coming up with original arguments if you didn't have the established cred (and tenure) to challenge the reigning Prof. Hot Shit. Saw another fellow grad student basically drumheaded out of the field for challenging the ideas of a prominent professor in the department. Big mistake.

    • by telchine (719345) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @10:49AM (#42260417)

      MOD PARENT UP (because he's a friend of mine and he promised he'd get my next comment modded up).

      • MOD PARENT UP (because he's a friend of mine and he promised he'd get my next comment modded up).

        Okay. That's one citation. How many more do I have to make before I get modded up too?

      • i write:

        why not, I mean, it is called PEER review.

        wiktionary says

        peer (plural peers)

                Somebody who is, or something that is, at a level equal (to that of something else).

        So by definition A is peer of A. And so it can review A work.

        QED.

        ^ this is so true.
         

    • If that's the case, why not just publish at an open-access site?
      • by ledow (319597) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:08AM (#42260663) Homepage

        I'd say:

        Because, from what I've seen, in certain field, publishing on arXiv is like handing a note "from your mother" written in your own scrawly handwriting and signed "Mom" to your teacher.

        It tends to get a bad rap and it's almost impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff precisely BECAUSE it's an open-access site. And absolute tripe can get there and get positive feedback without any rigorous verification at all.

        From what I see, if you want to stay reputable and not just "pass", you have to publish properly or not at all. And even that's not a guarantee.

        Think of the publishing industry. A self-published ebook is highly unlikely to sell millions of copies and be on the bookshelves for Christmas. It can happen. It has happened. But if you go to a literary agent and tell them you're self-published, or have previously published your book under an open-source license, they'll laugh you out of the room and not want to touch you. In some cases, people who have self-published 20 copies of their own "book" without any editing and failing every submission they've ever done and being rejected by every agent in the land will tell you they are a "published author" while everyone else snickers behind their back. Academic reputation is dealt in pretty much the same way.

        Science is open. Research is open. Publishing is open. But your reputation (and thus talks, jobs, further research, etc.) is predicated on being in properly peer-reviewed journals.

        • by PvtVoid (1252388)

          from what I've seen, in certain field, publishing on arXiv is like handing a note "from your mother" written in your own scrawly handwriting and signed "Mom" to your teacher.

          Really? I'm not sure what fields you're referring to. ArXiv was founded primarily to disseminate preprints in High Energy Physics. In that field, nobody treats it as the equivalent of a peer-reviewed journal, but it is where most people I know in the field actually get and read the literature. Hardly anybody looks papers up in the journals any more.

          For what it's worth, arXiv does filter out the outright crackpots, which is why viXra [vixra.org] exits. Shop and compare.

          • Last time I took a quick look at the Computer Science section of ArXiv, I only looked over a dozen titles, and saw one paper which claimed to prove that P=NP. I skimmed that paper, and found it full of plain wrong assertions, that is, where they simply hadn't glossed over things entirely. In short, that paper was garbage. If ArXiv filters obvious crackpots, they sure missed that one.
          • by heypete (60671)

            Exactly. An open-access record of preprints is really handy as it allows one to really keep up with the state of research (as opposed to journals, which are often months behind where things are right now).

            Take it with a grain of salt, of course, but it's useful in the same way that the Debian sid repository is useful.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Because you need to acknowledge all of the authors, including whoever is supervising you, and if they're trying to play the cut-throat politics game they might not be so keen to authorise the publication of a paper which contradicts one of their political buddies.

      • If that's the case, why not just publish at an open-access site?

        Because that site isn't peer reviewed. As we can see, peer review isn't the unblemished pillar we hold it up to be. But as a grad student whose adviser doesn't often check my work, peer review can be the only thing standing between me publishing a mistake and actually catching it. That being said, there are several open access sites that are peer reviewed. And in support of open access, the University of California, San Diego recently started a fund for researchers where it will pay for the fees for one ope

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jkflying (2190798)

      I guess it depends on what field you're in. If your field has 3 months of hard work implementing a system in order to be able to get any results at all, you probably won't have that kind of problem - it tends to weed out the people who aren't willing to put in the effort. I'm currently doing my MSc in robotic mapping (AKA SLAM) and the quality of papers I find has been consistently high. In fact, sometimes I wish they had tried some little tweak, because it would take me two weeks of coding/testing to figur

    • by JustOK (667959) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:03AM (#42260601) Journal

      It's Dr. Hot Shit. The PhD wasn't honorary.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by DNS-and-BIND (461968)
      I'm not buying it. Ph.D's don't pull these shenanigans - this sounds like a trailer park drama! If there's anything I've learned, it's that highly educated people are simply better than double-digit IQs. Moreover, most of society's mavericks are brave professors who challenge society to accept new, uncomfortable truths. You must be some sort of wingnut who was failed out of school for unacceptable political views instead of actual lack of intellect, that's the only thing that can explain your bitterness
      • by crazyjj (2598719) *

        LOL

      • by swan5566 (1771176)

        Ph.D's don't pull these shenanigans

        Well I have my Ph.D, and I work with a lot of Ph.Ds. The fact that this goes on a lot is hardly any secret. Where are you getting this notion from?

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        If there's anything I've learned, it's that highly educated people are simply better than double-digit IQs.

        I've known an awful lot of PhDs, and usually that is indeed the case. But there were two I knew, one a woman and one a man, who were dumb as doorknobs. I still don't have a clue how they ever graduated high school, let alone got PhDs (cheated? How did they get past the thesis?). Both of them seemed completely incapable of learning anything.

        I noticed that none of the other PhDs I'd known put "PhD" after

    • by doconnor (134648)

      Why can't the people in charge of making the career decisions for academics take the few days a year to read and judge papers themselves rather the relying on the peer review system to do it for them.

      • by rickb928 (945187)

        You think the chair can understand any of what their faculty is doing? bahahahaha. Even the faculty has to figure out what their GAs are doing.

      • by spikenerd (642677)

        Why can't the people in charge of making the career decisions for academics take the few days a year to read and judge papers themselves rather the relying on the peer review system to do it for them.

        Most places that hire people with PhDs want to cover lots of topics. Hence, none of the doctors are qualified to evaluate each other, and all of them are too busy to take the time to become qualified in each others' areas.

      • A lot of this money comes from Grants outside the people the people who makes the "career decisions".

        If that were the case there would be a lot of papers complementing such people. "Case Study: Human Resource Done right, example Mr. So and So from x university"

    • Re:Publish or Perish (Score:5, Interesting)

      by serviscope_minor (664417) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:27AM (#42260849) Journal

      At least 99% of the articles and papers coming out in my field fell into this category

      Certainly. The REF (research excellence framework) concocted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has actuall come up with and implemented a really good idea.

      This is actually quite shocking and really rather unexpected, but you know, stranger things have happened (like the release of Duke Nukem Forever and unexpected popularity of My Little Pony).

      Basically, it happens every 5 years or so and each researcher in the institution gets to submit up to 4 publications (that is less than 1 per year). The publications are then graded by impact, and the general quality is assessed.

      Naturally, the system is imperfect and it would be silly to think otherwise, but it is a huge improvement over the previous system.

      It almost does away with the wretched salami slicing, minimum publishable units and paper churning. Churning out 100 mid quality papers in 5 years is much worse according to the criteria than churning out 1 great one and 3 mid quality ones.

      In other words, it encourages people to dial back on the churn and concentrate on publishing high impact science.

      You could actually be seriously be penalized for coming up with original arguments if you didn't have the established cred

      Generally, the way to make a name in academia is to overturn the status quo. It's what everyone dreams of. The few papers that do successfully challenge things generally do much better in all measurable terms of impact than yet another me-too article (generally, but not always, sadly).

      Saw another fellow grad student basically drumheaded out of the field for challenging the ideas of a prominent professor in the department.

      I've never seen that but I don't doubt your story. Some professors are idiots and some departments are worse than useless.

      • > the way to make a name in academia is to overturn the status quo.

        I don't think it's as simple as that. An unknown researcher can't fight the conventional wisdom merely by being right. A recognized rising star might fight the accepted view. Or the CW might be tottering and rotten and the critics ready to rally around the right attack from a newcomer who has nothing to lose by bucking the establishment.

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:52AM (#42261127)

      It really comes down to a basic problem.
      We are trying to quantify peoples status in life/figure out if their funding is worth it. This makes sense because we live in a world of scarcity we cannot fully fund every idea.
      However we come up with measurements to quantify these things. Shortly after once people figure out the measurements will then change their behavior to put the measurements into their favor.

      If the measurement for a good scientist is the number of published papers, you are going to see a lot of crappy published papers, because they need to publish crap to get more resources.

      • Same with benchmarking in computer hardware. Quantifying performance into a single ( or a few ) number.

        It is caused by combination of scarce resources and laziness.

    • by timeOday (582209) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @12:59PM (#42262051)

      There is also the temptation to publish a lot of really conventional stuff that basically just takes someone else's work and modifies it slightly, or applies it to a slightly different framework. This is the academic equivalent of shovelware... At least 99% of the articles and papers coming out in my field fell into this category.

      Don't worry, lower-tier conferences and "journals" aren't confused with top journals. And the lower-tier venues play an important role. You can't have major leagues without minor leagues feeding into them, and their pipeline is in turn filled by colleges, then highschools, all the way down to little league. It takes years to work up to publishing in top-tier journals, and lower-tier venues are where you develop the chops. Most never make it to the summit after all, but still do useful applied work during their careers.

      You see conspiracy in some people at your school setting up a student workshop or conference as a venue for their work. To me that sounds like an enriching activity for those involved. Are you afraid they will somehow use this to leapfrog you into professorships at Stanford? Don't be. At most, this is the first of many steps towards such a goal.

      Of course, the fraud this story is about is a whole different matter.

  • by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @10:46AM (#42260361) Homepage Journal
    Elsevier does not help science, and an argument can be made that they actually hinder it instead. Their journal subscription costs go up all the time, which means that universities have to spend more to keep their subscriptions and get access to new articles. They charge as much to publish as higher-impact journals, and they add an additional fee to make an article open access.

    We should be spending research money on research, instead thanks to Elsevier we are spending research money on publication fees. They may have provided a useful service a decade (or more) ago when research universities were not as well interconnected and literature searches were more time consuming, but their current model does not fit with the modern state of scientific research. They need to adapt, or die. Keeping their current MO does not help anyone.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I guess academics should publish elsevier.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I guess academics should publish elsevier.

        Dear Professor Coward,

        After careful peer review we have concluded that your submitted draft comment should have been rejected.

        Reviewer's remarks: Woeful puns. Also, I didn't like how you formatted your figures entirely out of blank space.

    • What Elsevier journal are you paying to publish in? I have published in multiple Elsevier journals and have never been asked to pay a fee. I think this may be the policy of your particular journal?
    • The current system is a hindrance. As an undergraduate student I want to get the fullest picture of my field so I can become the most rounded nurse that I can be. In comes Elsevier, restricting access by imposing ridiculous fees - £30 for 24 hours, anyone?! - despite a wide ranging institutional subscription. Sod that.

      So I'm left reading abstracts, having to omit what look like relevant articles because I cannot verify the veracity of the authors methods. Let's not forget that this is affecting
  • by Lonewolf666 (259450) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @10:50AM (#42260435)

    See this article: http://science.slashdot.org/story/09/05/09/1514235/more-fake-journals-from-elsevier [slashdot.org]. Those guys have not much credibility left ;-)

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @12:19PM (#42261425) Journal

      Elsevier's ethical standards are such that, in all likelihood, they got hacked because somebody forgot to refill the firewall's kitten tears hopper or empty its puppy grinder promptly.

      Aside from doing...um... important work in pharmaceutical awareness, Reed Elsevier has the somewhat tense situation of owning The Lancet and a bunch of other medical journals that attract bleeding-heart do-no-harm types, and also running among the world's largest trade shows [dsei.co.uk] for the security forces of the world looking for new and exciting ways to generate interesting cases for the trauma surgeons to write up. They've had some togetherness issues over that.

      • by PvtVoid (1252388)

        Elsevier's ethical standards are such that, in all likelihood, they got hacked because somebody forgot to refill the firewall's kitten tears hopper or empty its puppy grinder promptly.

        Somebody please mod parent "Extra Awesome".

  • by DCFusor (1763438) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:14AM (#42260729) Homepage
    Heck, they even published my book! This, after having bought it from another publisher (...). None of the three publishers who have owned my book report positive sales numbers, yet I continue (years out) to get emails from people who have read the code that was provided with it, and which the book is about.
    .

    Yes, if you believe them, it's possible to sell negative numbers of books when it comes to figuring out how not to pay me the royalties. These guys make the **AA's look like pikers with their "hollywood accounting". Sure, I know I never sold a million copies, but...I know I sold tens of thousands because I've had that many unique emails; the original publisher, Miller Freeman, sanitized the book text of my email address - but didn't bother actually reading the code!
    .

    And now they are selling an e-book version, without asking me. One wonders what you'll do with a ton of fancy MFC code on a kindle....if they even provide it anymore.
    .

    These guys can go to hell - all of them. They are holding back science progress. Go check on the individual subscription rate for say, Rev Sci Ins with all the discounts. The cable TV guys need to learn how to bundle and overprice from them - for me, last I checked, it was $60k/year with all discounts to get hold of back issues of that one journal (in a bundle you can't pick and choose). I mean, wow, 60k/year per customer? Wonder how many servers they maintain for that - one? It's not like they wrote or even paid for those papers...I did, you did - tax paid research on which they got an additional publisher copyright to play this game with. Sure, if you can find the original author, they'll often send you a copy of the paper free, but if you're going through old physics looking for low hanging fruit - those guys are dead.

  • Science will go on. The whole point to duplicate results.
  • by call -151 (230520) * on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @11:44AM (#42261029) Homepage

    Elsevier's financial interests have repeatedly caused conflicts before with the overall interest of good quality scientific publishing at a good value. There is a reason that many scientists have organized an Elsevier boycott, see this earlier slashdot story [slashdot.org] as very little has changed since then, aside from some superficial Elsevier posturing.

    There are good quality affordable journals, run by professional societies or universities, which are an excellent alternative to Elsevier and other expensive for-profit journals. For the health of science, it is important that people choose to submit there. For untenured people who are under a great deal of pressure to submit to "top journals" it poses a difficult quandary, but for those of us for whom that isn't a concern, I don't see a reason to continue to support journals and publishers which have repeatedly done poorly.

  • Its small enough with just a few hundred in a sub-specialty.
  • What we have here is a classical example of the Principle-Agent Problem [wikipedia.org] - which one observes very often in Politics and Business as well. In my opinion, it is precisely well developed institutions that manage to consolidate the conflict of interests of their members.

    One of the reasons the Institution of Science works is that it manages to turn what might seem to be a conflict of interest into mutual benefit, through the peer review process. What we see in this day and age are bloated institutions better
  • by ntropia (939502) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @12:59PM (#42262043)
    At least for Medicine and Biology, there is PLOS ONE [plosone.org], an open source journal, online-only, with peer review and Creative Commons license.
    Despite being fairly new, it has already gained a more than respectable impact factor of 4.092 (2011) and it's getting more and more momentum (although it aims to go against the "obsession of the impact factor").
    As expected, initial reactions were pretty cold, especially from traditional publishers, but after its successful approach, several similar OpenAccess initiatives followed (yes, even from those traditional publishers like Nature Publishing Group they were 'teasing' directly with their launch campaign a-la-Apple VS IBM [wikipedia.org]).
    Being an electronic-only journal, they don't impose any limits to the length of an article, nor the number of figures and (as silly as it sounds) you don't have to pay any extra money for having your figures in color, as with many other journals.

    In my opinion, their main achievement was to proof that their business model works and that traditional publishers are not the only viable option.

    Source:Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]
  • ....evil multinational, which owns one of the major legal databases in North America, target of an ethical lawsuit several years back, alleging that the "precedent cases" in its database were being altered to favor specific court trials in favor of certain major financial firms, is hacked??? I'm shocked, I tell you....shocked......

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