Multimillion-dollar trade in paper authorships alarms publishers

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Close-up of one hundred dollar bills being passed between two people

Buying a fraudulent authorship can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.Credit: Getty

Research-integrity sleuths have uncovered hundreds of online advertisements that offer the chance to buy authorship on research papers to be published in reputable journals.

Publishers are investigating the claims, and have retracted dozens of articles over suspicions that people have paid to be named as authors, despite not participating in the research. Integrity specialists warn that the problem is growing, and say that other retractions are likely to follow.

Vitalij Pecharsky, a materials scientist at Iowa State University in Ames and editor-in-chief of an affected journal, was “really pissed off” when he found out about the adverts. “I know many things are for sale, but authorship? It’s just crazy. This is just totally unacceptable,” he told Nature last year (Pecharsky died in December).

Most of the adverts are posted on social-media sites including Facebook and Telegram, as well as the websites of companies that claim to offer academic publishing services. They often include the title of the paper, the journal it will be published in, the year of publication and the position of authorship slots available for purchase. Prices range from hundreds to thousands of US dollars depending on the research area and the journal’s prestige.

Social-media ads

Anna Abalkina, an economist at the Free University of Berlin, and Nick Wise, an engineer at the University of Cambridge, UK, independently began investigating the adverts when they first started appearing in large numbers in 2019. Abalkina focuses on adverts on websites originating in Russia and Eastern Europe, and Wise looks at those circulated on Facebook and Telegram.

Both researchers have found published papers that they think are linked to adverts that offer authorships for sale. Two of the Telegram channels that Wise follows feature at least 300 adverts each.

In a preprint1 posted on the arXiv server in December 2021, Abalkina describes an analysis of more than 1,000 authorship offers, together worth more than US$6.5 million, published in 2019–21 on a Russian-language website called International Publisher. She has now linked 460 published papers to the adverts. (International Publisher did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.)

Spate of retractions

Journals have begun investigating and retracting papers that seem to be linked to the adverts. In July 2022, the International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning retracted 30 papers linked to adverts on International Publisher. The retraction notices say that the work was connected to a “criminal paper mill selling authorships and articles for publication in several online journals to paying customers”. The blog Retraction Watch highlighted this case in an investigation into International Publisher published in December 2021.

“Generally, these things are really difficult to prove,” says Tim Kersjes, a research-integrity manager at Springer Nature in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. But adverts that list specific manuscript titles offer convincing evidence that people are buying authorships, he adds. (Nature’s news team is independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

In May 2022, Springer Nature retracted a paper for the first time over suspicions that some of the authorships were paid-for, after investigating a tip-off from Abalkina. It has since retracted 11 papers in a further 5 journals over similar concerns. More investigations are under way.

“We have a zero-tolerance approach,” says Kersjes. “It’s a matter about integrity and reliability of the public record.” Readers need to be able to trust that the authors listed on a paper actually did the work to generate the data and can be held accountable for it, he adds.

Pecharsky’s publication — the Journal of Alloys and Compounds, published by Elsevier in Amsterdam — retracted a paper in November after a tip from Wise. Authorships on the paper had been advertised on an Iranian Telegram channel. The journal is investigating two further papers whose titles were advertised there, and a fourth paper that shares a corresponding author with one of the papers under scrutiny.

In these cases, Pecharsky said, new authors were added to the papers after the first round of peer review. He launched an effort to review any papers published in the journal over the past two years that had authorship-change requests after the first round of review. “I just want to make sure that this thing isn’t going to propagate,” he told Nature.

Wise says that since October, five journals have investigated and retracted a paper each as a result of his sleuthing.

Evolving fraud

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an advisory board for publishers in Eastleigh, UK, says that authorship adverts show the evolution of paper mills — businesses that produce fake research for scientists who need publications for their CVs. “It’s big business, and run by more and more sophisticated organizations,” says Deborah Kahn, a member of the COPE board of trustees.

Abalkina thinks that the companies have developed from those that previously dealt with predatory journals — titles that publish papers for a fee but do not perform the quality-control checks of a conventional journal. Scholarly databases have removed many such journals.

The market for authorships has developed because, in many countries, researchers are still evaluated for promotion on the basis of the number of papers they publish, say Abalkina and Wise. And those seeking to buy their way onto research papers usually want them to appear in journals listed in citation databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, so that they seem legitimate.

The problem will grow, says Abalkina. “We are chasing them and they are always a step ahead.”