In a strange case of identity theft in science, someone pretending to be a French engineering researcher wormed his or her way into the editing process at a scientific publication called Scientific World Journal. The impostor reviewed three articles before the caper was uncovered, reports the website Retraction Watch, which chronicles fraud and errors in scientific publishing.
The stolen identity in question was Xavier Delorme’s, an industrial engineering professor at the Ecole des Mines de Saint-Étienne, a graduate school in France. (The Post has reached out to the authentic Delorme for comment, who was unable to respond by publication time.) An individual purporting to be Delorme approached the Scientific World Journal with a concept for a special issue — and also volunteered to edit it, according to Paul Peters, the chief executive of Scientific World’s publishing company Hindawi.
While writing to the journal, the faux reviewer presented what looked like a legitimate email address and curriculum vitae. “We corresponded with this “fake” Delorme and the other Guest Editors during the process of reviewing the proposal and launching the Special Issue,” Peters told Retraction Watch.
Around the same time, the actual Delorme began corresponding with the publication about “an unrelated issue,” Peters said, and the French engineer entered his true email address into Hindawi’s system. When the Scientific World Journal contacted the real Delorme about the phony special issue edits, the tangle of lies unraveled. The original email and CV were spurious, including a falsified relationship between Delorme and the University of Sherbrooke.
By that point, the three papers that the impostor Delorme had edited were published in the journal. The publisher also uncovered two additional reports in the special issue that had gone through peer-review from sources with fictitious email addresses. Hindawi released a retraction notice in late April, writing, “we have strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised.” The identities of whomever committed the fraud remain a mystery. And without a guilty party, Peters said, Hindawi was unwilling to speculate on a motive.
“In this case, the text of the reviews did not appear unusual or contain unreasonable requests for citations,” he told Retraction Watch. “We simply found that a number of reviews had been submitted from fraudulent email accounts.” Retraction Watch notes that all corresponding authors listed on the retracted papers, which primarily involve machine learning and network algorithms, come from India’s Anna University in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Scholarly peer-review is the cornerstone of academic publishing. The goal is self-regulation, in which expert equals, whose identities are typically kept anonymous to the author, offer an impartial assessment of research. But few would call it perfect. Scientists have been airing their grievances against this system since its inception a century ago. As the journal Nature recently noted, one London publication decried scientific judges as “full of envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness” — in 1845.
But the charlatan Scientific World edits come at a time when cracks in the scientific peer-review process feel increasingly apparent. In 2014, the exposure of a so-called “peer review and citation ring” at the Journal of Vibration and Control felled some 60 papers. Last year, Hindawi journals were also involved in a scandal whereby three editors gave 32 papers the thumbs up from reviewers who didn’t exist.
In March last year, a major publisher of scholarly medical and science articles retracted 43 papers because of “fabricated” peer reviews amid signs of a broader fake peer review racket affecting many more publications.
Likewise, scientific retractions from misconduct and fraud have risen since 1975 by a factor of up to 10, according to a 2012 study. A major reason, as the Atlantic wrote in September, is the combination of fewer jobs in academia and less funding, which leads to a “publish or perish” mentality. As the co-founders of Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, opined in the New York Times last May: “Science fetishizes the published paper as the ultimate marker of individual productivity.”