I Published a Fake Paper in a ‘Peer-Reviewed’ Journal (2023)

Back in April, I received a strange email from a pair of academic journals inviting me to submit my research to one of their latest issues. The email was written in a jarring mix of fonts, and riddled with formatting mistakes and bungled idioms. The editor who sent it to me had, inexplicably, attached a handbook on Covid-19 hospital protocols, a document that detailed at length the precise mechanism of sealing the dead in a “leak-proof corpse wrapping sheet.”

It was the kind of email you might expect to receive from a long-lost uncle who wants to send you a barrel of gold bullions if you could, kindly, just wire him the cost of the shipping via Western Union. Except they didn’t want my money — at least not yet. They wanted a research manuscript.

I suspected the email was from a scam website masquerading as an academic publication, part of a growing menace known as “predatory journals.” In the niche world of academic publishing fraud, these groups make money by posing as legitimate scientific journals, publishing anything they get their hands on, and then charging authors hundreds or even thousands of dollars in processing fees. While some straight-laced researchers simply get duped into submitting to these journals, other people write bogus articles for more nefarious reasons — to pad their publication record, for instance, or to lend an air of credibility to pseudoscientific ideas that would never pass muster with serious scientists. And while there’s never really an opportune time for fake science, it is an especially acute problem during a global pandemic, when access to legitimate science is vital to public health.

What makes these frauds so devious is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell whether a journal is real just by looking at it online. Many of them have all the trappings of legitimate academic publications: professional looking websites; in-paper links to different volumes of the journal; “open-access” icons; even digital object identifiers, a sort of universal barcode for scientific papers. Perhaps the only foolproof way to root out a predatory journal is to demonstrate that it publishes junk science. So that’s what I decided to do.

The U.S.-China Education Review A & B, ostensibly a pair of monthly journals of education research, had dug up a conference presentation of mine about extracurricular science learning. They wanted me to send them a manuscript about that research, which they claimed they would publish a few weeks later if it met their editorial standards and passed a “rigorous” independent peer review involving at least two reviewers. Instead, I concocted seven pages of flapdoodle, including references — loosely following the plot of the TV series “Breaking Bad” — about the educational value of high school students driving into the desert and making drugs.

The paper was ridiculous. I claimed that New Mexico is part of the Galapagos Islands, that craniotomy is a legitimate means of assessing student learning, and that all my figures were made in Microsoft Paint. At one point, I lamented that our research team was unable to measure study participants’ “cloacal temperatures.” Any legitimate peer reviewer who bothered to read just the abstract would’ve tossed the paper in the garbage (or maybe called the police). That is, if they even got past the title page, which listed my coauthors as “Breaking Bad” lead characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.

(Video) Academic Hoax

True to their word, a few weeks after my submission, an editor let me know my article made it through peer review and was published. (Despite my not having paid the $520 publishing fee, the fake paper was still available on the journal’s website when this essay was originally published, but it was eventually taken down after I alerted them to the spoof. An archived version of the paper as it appeared on the journal’s website can be seen here.) I was floored.

The U.S.-China Education Review A&B have all the hallmarks of predatory journals. The journals’ publisher, David Publishing Company, has been derided online as a “massive spammer” whose headquarters repeatedly shift from one dubious address to another. It was also included on a list of possible predatory publishers known as “Beall’s List,” which was famously maintained by retired University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall before it was reportedly taken down under the threat of legal action. (An archived version of the list remains accessible here.)

What makes these frauds so devious is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell whether a journal is real just by looking at it online.

And while at first it was amusing to see the degree of nonsense this organization was willing to put on their website, my feelings quickly soured. Although my article was goofy, the truth is I could have written anything I wanted and presented it to the world as legitimate science, using the slick veneer of this journal as cover to spread disinformation. Suppose I had instead invented an article disputing the health benefits of vaccination?

(Video) Fake Peer-Review & Predatory Publishers (Watch This Before Submitting or Citing Any Research Paper)

This flavor of disinformation is not hypothetical; it’s happening right now. This summer, a paper claiming that 5G radio signals cause coronavirus was published in The Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents, which is suspected by some to be a predatory journal in part because some members of its editorial board appear to be dead. The eye-popping article, co-authored by an Iranian scientist with a research background in decapitating quails, was complete nonsense, despite an impressive-looking mess of equations. But that didn’t stop it from being shared widely on social media and alt-right sites like InfoWars, feeding into a motley assortment of conspiracies about 5G that have led people to try to burn down cell phone towers. The fact that the journal that published the article was indexed by PubMed essentially gave it a stamp of approval from one of the largest vetted biomedical research databases in the world.

In just the past few months, other articles hosted by dubious publishers have suggested that olive oil and “provincial herbs,” or jade amulets, may prevent Covid-19. A recent review of publishing during the pandemic found more than 360 articles related to Covid-19 that were published in likely predatory journals. And while some of the more outlandish of these papers appear to have been written earnestly — by researchers who also happen to be delusional — others seem to have had more pernicious purposes.

Access to legitimate sources of scientific information is essential for effective public discourse. It is particularly critical during a global health emergency. Yet even as academic journals are increasingly bringing science out of the ivory tower through online publishing and open-access journals, purveyors of misinformation are muddying the waters. All the open access in the world means nothing if you don’t know whether what you’re reading is real. This dilemma is representative of the broader paradox of the information age: A flood of easily accessible information in the knowledge pipeline can be both a great equalizer and a means of further stratification if the information some people keep finding is the gunk around the rim.

Although my article was goofy, the truth is I could have written anything I wanted and presented it to the world as legitimate science.

(Video) Maynooth Open Research Inaugural Lecture: Open Research Practices in the Age of a Papermill Pandemic

There are occasional attempts to stem the rise of predatory publishing. In 2017, researchers published an experiment in Nature outlining how they sent hundreds of bogus applications for a made-up scientist to serve as an editor at predatory journals — and found that dozens of journals were willing to hire someone with no relevant qualifications to review articles. And then there are the folks who do what I did: publish nonsense and then publicize that fact to prove that a journal is predatory. Although it’s satisfying to see such a journal ridiculed for publishing an article that just repeats the words “Get me off your fucking mailing list” hundreds of times, it probably does little to stem the tide of predatory publishing.

So what can be done to stop predatory journals and give the public more informed access to legitimate science? Social media sites could probably pay a role in flagging known make-believe articles as misinformation, since most of the traffic to these articles is driven by shares on social media. Unfortunately, that level of moderation requires an ability to discern whether or not information is legitimate, which is hard to do for a tweet, let alone a 10-page paper full of scientific jargon.

Until a better system for rooting out disinformation online is sorted out, dealing with predatory journals in the era of Covid-19 will require discernment and common sense on the part of individual readers, and a clear-eyed understanding that fraud is alive and well in every corner of the internet — even in the banal tomes of scientific literature.

In the meantime, if you see an article floating around that touts the educational benefits of sending high school students into the New Mexico desert to make drugs, please, pay it no mind.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this essay linked to the author’s spoof paper directly at the U.S.-China Education Review website. After publication, however, the paper was removed from the journal. This essay has been edited to note this removal, and to provide a link to an archived version of the journal’s website.

Bradley Allf (@bradleyallf) is a freelance science writer and Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University studying conservation biology. His work has been featured in Scientific American, Discover, Atlas Obscura, and other publications.

(Video) The Grievance Studies Affair - REVEALED


Can peer-reviewed studies be wrong? ›

As you can see, not every paper that is peer-reviewed is a mistake-free paper with good science. Figure 2: It can be difficult to get a paper through multiple reviewers, and even if a paper does get published, it does not mean that it is necessarily free of mistakes.

What happens if I publish in a predatory journal? ›

The papers you publish in predatory journals are unlikely to be cited, which will affect the impact of your research and, if you care about such things, it will stop metrics such as your h-index growing as fast as it could. Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the lack of peer review, with all that entails.

How reliable are peer-reviewed journals? ›

Peer-review is by no means perfect. It is itself subject to bias, as most things in research are. Evidence from a peer-reviewed article does not make it reliable, based only on that fact.

Can you trust peer-reviewed articles? ›

Even if everything is done properly, peer review is not infallible. If authors fake their data very cleverly, for example, then it may be difficult to detect. Deliberately faking data is, however, relatively rare. Not because scientists are saints but because it is foolish to fake data.

Can a paper be rejected after peer review? ›

However, it's very common for papers to be rejected; studies have shown that around 21% of papers are rejected without review, while approximately 40% of papers are rejected after peer review.

Is peer review legally binding? ›

Peer Review is a problem-solving process where an employee takes a dispute to a group or panel of fellow employees and managers for a decision. The decision is not binding on the employee, and s/he would be able to seek relief in traditional forums for dispute resolution if dissatisfied with the decision.

What are at least three signs that a journal is predatory? ›

The journal is difficult to locate in library catalogs, i.e. few major libraries subscribe to it. The scope is overly broad and/or does it fit well with your research. Publication frequency is irregular or not stated. May have the same or similar name to a legitimate journal.

What are the consequences of publication misconduct? ›

Reputational impact

Plagiarism or false representation of facts and words can lead to suspension or expulsion from the university or the organisation they are working in.

How can you spot predatory publishing? ›

Identifying a predator
  1. The journal's scope of interest includes unrelated subjects alongside legitimate topics.
  2. Website contains spelling and grammar errors.
  3. Images or logos are distorted/fuzzy or misrepresented/unauthorized.
  4. Website targets authors, not readers (i.e. publisher prioritizes making money over product).

Does it matter if an article is peer-reviewed? ›

The major advantage of a peer review process is that peer-reviewed articles provide a trusted form of scientific communication. Since scientific knowledge is cumulative and builds on itself, this trust is particularly important.

What are the disadvantages of peer review? ›

Con: Peer reviews can create confusion

Being reviewed by peers means that one person will no longer be evaluating someone's performance. While the goal is to create more balanced, accurate feedback, the downside is that multiple reviewers can cause confusion. People may get clashing feedback.

What does it mean if a journal has been peer-reviewed? ›

A peer-reviewed publication is also sometimes referred to as a scholarly publication. The peer-review process subjects an author's scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field (peers) and is considered necessary to ensure academic scientific quality.

Do you get paid for peer review? ›

Peer reviewers get paid for reviewing books and conference papers, so why should journals be any different? Critics argue that payments to peer reviewers would simply be passed on in higher subscription fees or article processing charges, but all that does is perpetuate the low internal valuation of the service.

Why is peer review imperfect? ›

Answer and Explanation: Peer review in science is a flawed process. Peer review in science might be an imperfect system because it is slow and expensive as it is hard to get high-quality data at this outlay since reviewers are not rewarded often.

How common is rejection after peer review? ›

It is very common for papers to be rejected. Studies indicate that 21% of papers are rejected without review, and approximately 40% of papers are rejected after peer review.

Do most journals accept resubmission of rejected papers? ›

Yes. In fact, some journals encourage resubmission after some months. But such resubmission would have addressed concerns from the previous review. In some other cases, Editor can request that a resubmission should have about 50% changes.

How often are papers rejected by journals? ›

Only 3 out of every 100 research papers submitted to prominent journals such as The Cell, Nature, and Science make it past the editor and then peer review process. These journals have rejection rates as high as 97 percent. Even in publications with less stringent screening, acceptance percentages rarely reach 40%.

What is the golden rule of peer review? ›

The golden rules

The identity of the reviewers must be kept confidential unless open peer review is used. Reviewers advise and make recommendations; editors make the decisions. Reviewers must assess manuscripts objectively and review the work, not the authors. Editors-in-chief must have full editorial independence.

Is the peer-review process blind? ›

Peer review may be “single-blind,” in which reviewers are aware of the names and affiliations of paper authors, or “double-blind,” in which this information is hidden.

What is peer review misconduct? ›

Peer review misconduct

In recent years a number of journal publishers, including SAGE, have been affected by attempts to defraud and circumvent the peer review system, specifically by abusing the preferred or recommended reviewer functionality.

How do you identify publication misconduct? ›

Publication misconduct includes plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, inappropriate authorship, duplicate submission/multiple submissions, overlapping publication, and salami publication.

What is an example of a predatory journal? ›

An example of one such company is OMICS Publishing Group, an open-access journal publisher (and conference organizer). It buys other publishing companies and produces hundreds of low-quality online journals to benefit from author fees.

What are different types of publication misconduct? ›

Types of publication misconduct
  • Overview.
  • Plagiarism and copyright infringement.
  • Duplicate publication.
  • Data fabrication and falsification.
  • Authorship disputes.
  • Peer review misconduct.
  • Citation manipulation.

What are the 3 types of research misconduct? ›

In accordance with U.S. federal policy, there are three forms of research misconduct: plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification.

Can a published paper be removed? ›

Articles that have been published shall remain extant, exact and unaltered as far as is possible. However, very occasionally circumstances may arise where an article is published that must later be retracted or even removed. Such actions must not be undertaken lightly and can only occur under exceptional circumstances.

Can a paper be corrected after publication? ›

A Correction notice will be issued when it is necessary to correct an error or omission which can impact the interpretation of the article, but where the scholarly integrity of the article remains intact. Examples include mislabeling of a figure, missing key information on funding or competing interests of the authors.

What is unethical publication? ›

What is unethical publishing? Unethical or suspicious publishing (sometimes known as predatory journal or vampire press) is an opportunistic publishing technique that exploits the academic need to publish but offers little reward to those who use their services.

How do you get rid of publication bias? ›

Publication bias may be reduced by journals by publishing high-quality studies regardless of novelty or unexciting results, and by publishing protocols or full-study data sets.

What makes a journal predatory? ›

The consensus definition reached was: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and ...

What makes a peer-reviewed article reliable? ›

Articles from scholarly, peer-reviewed, academic, and refereed journals are more credible than articles from popular or trade journals ('magazines') because they have gone through the most rigorous review process. They also have the most references or citations.

Does peer-reviewed mean more than one author? ›

The peer-review process is anonymous, to prevent personal biases and favoritism from affecting the outcomes. Reviewers read manuscripts that omit the names of the author(s). When the reviewers' feedback is given to the author(s), the reviewers' names are omitted.

Is Google Scholar All peer-reviewed? ›

If you find articles in Google Scholar, you would have to look up the journal the article is published in to find out whether they use peer review or not. When using library databases, there are options to restrict to peer review, either from the main search page or usually in the left hand column of the results page.

Why do peer reviews fail? ›

Shoddy work often makes it past peer reviewers, while excellent research has been shot down. Peer reviewers often fail to detect bad research, conflicts of interest and corporate ghostwriting.

What can peer review do and not do? ›

Peer review is designed to assess the validity, quality and often the originality of articles for publication. Its ultimate purpose is to maintain the integrity of science by filtering out invalid or poor quality articles.

What are the three main purposes of a peer review? ›

Peer review methods are used to maintain quality standards, improve performance, and provide credibility. In academia, scholarly peer review is often used to determine an academic paper's suitability for publication.

What happens during peer review Select all appropriate responses? ›

Peer review is the system used to assess the quality of a manuscript before it is published. Independent researchers in the relevant research area assess submitted manuscripts for originality, validity and significance to help editors determine whether a manuscript should be published in their journal.

What does a reviewer do during peer review? ›

What does a reviewer do during peer review? He reviews the paper looking for errors and makes sure the paper meets standards set down by the scientific community.

What is the difference between journal and peer review? ›

A "peer review" journal is a subset within scholarly journals in which the articles submitted are reviewed by researchers in the same discipline to determine if the article merits publication. This review process helps to ensure that only excellent and high-quality research articles are published.

How much do peer reviewers make? ›

How much does a Peer Reviewer make? As of Oct 28, 2022, the average annual pay for a Peer Reviewer in the United States is $48,572 a year.

What happens after a peer review? ›

Peer reviewers independently make a recommendation to the journal editor as to whether the manuscript should be rejected or accepted (with or without revisions). The journal editor considers all the feedback from peer reviewers and makes an informed decision to accept or reject the manuscript.

How do peer-reviewed journals make money? ›

All of this must be paid for through sales and advertising. Academic journals have cleverly managed to turn this situation on its head. The production of content is paid for by research funds, both the salaries of the researchers and the substantial costs involved in undertaking research.

Do peer reviewers ever make mistakes? ›

People make mistakes.

Manuscript authors, reviewers, and editors are people, and people are not perfect. Even if every person involved in the publication of a manuscript catches 99% of all errors, it's still possible that some errors will go unnoticed.

Can peer reviews be wrong? ›

Despite its obvious benefits, the peer review method is not without its flaws. There have been quite a few issues with people committing peer review fraud over the years, and this is far from the only problem with peer review. In fact, there are numerous flaws, and as such, peer review has garnered a lot of criticism.

Why is peer review not reliable? ›

Research on peer review is not particularly well-developed, especially as part of the broader issue of research integrity; often produces conflicting, overlapping or inconclusive results depending on scale and scope; and seems to suffer from similar biases to much of the rest of the scholarly literature [8].

Are peer-reviewed studies conclusive? ›

Peer-reviewed journals are publications in which scientific contributions have been vetted by experts in the relevant field. Peer-reviewed articles provide a trusted form of scientific communication. Peer-reviewed work isn't necessarily correct or conclusive, but it does meet the standards of science.

Are there any drawbacks to using peer-reviewed articles? ›

There are no grading systems about the quality of the peer review. Different journals have different standards, and there is no way to know the expertise and quality of the reviewers or editor.

What should you not say in a peer review? ›

The Don'ts of Peer Review

Don't make any personal reference to the authors and avoid exclamation points or an emotional style. Peer review is not an emotional process. Don't say things like, "I don't believe it" and "I find this unconvincing. I find these results underwhelming or trivial or not important."

What should not happen at a peer review? ›

Most peer reviews are blind, which is to say that the author will not know the identity of the reviewer, but even if this policy is not in place, avoid personal remarks and personal details in your review report. Suggestions for improvements should certainly be offered, but within reason.

Does peer-reviewed matter? ›

Within the scientific community, peer review has become an essential component of the academic writing process. It helps ensure that papers published in scientific journals answer meaningful research questions and draw accurate conclusions based on professionally executed experimentation.

What qualifies as peer-reviewed? ›

A peer-reviewed publication is also sometimes referred to as a scholarly publication. The peer-review process subjects an author's scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field (peers) and is considered necessary to ensure academic scientific quality.

How do you fix a peer review? ›

How to improve the peer-review process
  1. Create incentives for peer review. According to Carroll, formal training on how to conduct peer reviews could help improve the quality and pace of reviews. ...
  2. Conduct fully blinded reviews. ...
  3. Publish manuscripts for public review. ...
  4. Change attitudes.
27 Nov 2018

What is one disadvantage of the peer review process? ›

Being reviewed by peers means that one person will no longer be evaluating someone's performance. While the goal is to create more balanced, accurate feedback, the downside is that multiple reviewers can cause confusion. People may get clashing feedback.


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