It can be hard to keep up with the latest examples of fraud rings and other organized wrongdoing, but here's one that takes the cake: the scientific monthly Journal of Vibration and Control is retracting 60 articles "implicated in a peer review and citation ring."
In the words of Retraction Watch, which tracks the comings and goings of peer-reviewed scientific papers, "This one deserves a 'wow.'"
The acoustics journal's publisher, London-based SAGE, says it busted the ring following a 14-month investigation. It points the finger of accusation at Peter Chen, a researcher formerly of the National Pingtung University of Education of Taiwan, who resigned in February.
SAGE contends that Chen and possible collaborators may have set up as many as 130 fake email accounts that they used to fabricate identities as peer reviewers to help clear articles for publication. On at least one occasion, SAGE alleges, Chen "reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created."
Peer-review fraud is not especially new, though something on this scale seems to be a record. In 2012, Retraction Watch reported that a single South Korean agricultural scientist had used fake email accounts to review as many as 24 of his own papers under false names.
That same year, the scientific publisher Elsevier retracted 11 papers published in its journals after its review system was found to have been hacked; in at least one case, the referee's report had been submitted under the name of an established scientist who knew nothing about it. The authors of the submitted papers evidently were innocent.
These incidents don't in themselves invalidate the principle of peer review, which aims to lend credibility to published papers by running them past established authorities in their field. But they underscore a point often made by UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, a founder of the open-access Public Library of Science: The assumption that pre-publication peer review is a guarantee, or even a strong indication, of scientific validity is unwarranted.
The shortcomings of that form of peer review were made plain a few years ago when researchers at the Thousand Oaks biotech firm Amgen tried to double-check the results of 53 landmark papers in cancer research and blood biology. Only six could be proved valid -- "a shocking result," according to Amgen's then-head of global cancer research, C. Glenn Begley.
Eisen and others favor shifting to post-publication review. Under that system, qualified scientists are encouraged to post public comments about published papers. The idea is to replace a one-time pre-publication skim with continuing scrutiny, so that poor research can be identified quickly and good research can be picked out of the crowd and find a wider audience.
Some publishers are moving that way, though slowly. In a way, Peter Chen's alleged misdeeds may strike a blow for better science, by reminding everyone that it takes more than one peer-review approval to make for a valid paper.