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News Feature: Detecting Fake Scientific Papers

Updated: Aug 15

May 16, 2023, #39

Jeffrey Brainard wrote in Science about how ‘Fake Scientific Papers Are Alarmingly Common; But New Tools Show Promise in Tackling Growing Symptom of Academia’s “Publish or Perish” Culture. This problem is well known, but the development of tools to address the growth of fake papers is less so, perhaps because detection itself is a complex art. Neuropsychologist Bernhard Sabel tested his “fake-paper detector” by screening 5,000 papers. His results suggest that “up to 34% of neuroscience papers published in 2020 were likely made up or plagiarized; in medicine, the figure was 24%.”¹ Not everyone is convinced. “Sabel’s tool relies on just two indicators - authors who use private, noninstitutional email addresses, and those who list an affiliation with a hospital.”¹ The rationale for the choice of email addresses as an indicator is open to debate, and the fact that the tool has “a high false-positive rate”¹, undercuts the value of Sabel’s statistics, but at least he is transparent about how his tool works. The “International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), representing 120 publishers, is leading an effort called the Integrity Hub to develop new tools.”¹ Nonetheless they are “not revealing much about the detection methods, to avoid tipping off paper mills.”¹ Whether that is the whole reason, or whether some hope of commercialization lies behind their reluctance to speak openly is unknown. Automating detection is certainly economically important: “in 2021, Springer Nature’s postpublication review of about 3000 papers suspected of coming from paper mills required up to 10 part- and full-time staffers, said Chris Graf, the company’s director of research integrity…”¹ This cost could be one reason why serious publishers are expensive. Nonetheless small steps matter. “Adam Day, founding director of a startup called Clear Skies”¹ notes that flagging suspect journals helps and “points to his analysis of journals that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) put on a public list because of suspicions they contained paper mill papers.”¹ As Brainard suggests in his title, the “publish or perish” culture is part of the problem. While colleagues at even top universities may feel implicit social pressure to publish, the explicit “publish or perish" rules often reflect the anxiety of administrators who take comfort in the clarity of numerical rankings regardless of its effect on research fraud.


1: Jeffrey Brainard, ‘Fake Scientific Papers Are Alarmingly Common; But New Tools Show Promise in Tackling Growing Symptom of Academia’s “Publish or Perish” Culture’, 9 May 2023,

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