Last Friday the Washington Post published an article about fake peer review and how it has affected the UK publisher BioMed Central. At least 43 papers have been retracted so far and we have not found this list to see if it included papers published in the Malaria Journal or Parasites & Vectors. How is it possible that such scandals emerge, one could wonder...
First, have a look at the article in the Washington Post, and read what BioMed Central has to say in an online commentary (its own website by the way). The publishers can argue of course that they are not to blame. Authors that suggest peer reviewers during their online submission process have apparently faked email addresses of suggested reviewers and linked these email addresses to their own accounts. Very clever: You get to review your own manuscript. So you fill in the names of well-respected names in the field of your work (Professor so-and-so) and then fill an email address that links to your own address.
The problem of course is that editors are under severe pressure form all angles. Authors want to see their work published as quickly as possible, and the publisher wants to push out as many papers as possible (the more papers, the more profit). And so the editors, one may assume, are pleased to see the names of authoritative individuals put forward by the authors. A few clicks later the manuscript is on its way back to the authors...
But there are questions to be asked here. Does the editor not have email contact with the reviewers? Or is everything arranged through an automated system (this is how I have experienced the review process with BMC)? Either way, if the editor would have contact with the reviewers this would reduce the likelihood of fraud.
Next, do reviewers and editors never meet and discuss submitted manuscripts? One could imagine that this whole issue of fake peer review should have surfaced a long time ago if the editor would directly communicate with reviewers (at a conference or simply by Skype or a phonecall). This apparently is not happening.
And then: Do editors check the submitted reviews carefully enough? And should glorious reviews not somehow set off alarm bells if the manuscript itself is mediocre? But can editors really keep track of all this? The Malaria Journal published 512 articles in 2014. Impossible for the editor (Marcel Hommel) to keep track of this huge 'turnover'.
Our view remains unchanged: scientific publishing as a profit-making business is asking for trouble.