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Wise spots awkward phrasing and other red flags to identify fraudulent research papers.
By Dalmeet Singh Chawla | June 15, 2023
Alongside his research in engineering and fluid dynamics at the University of Cambridge, Nick Wise has what he calls a “weird hobby.” Every day, he spends around an hour as a scientific sleuth, trawling through research papers to sniff out potential fraud and misconduct.
Wise was inspired by other prominent sleuths. Elisabeth Bik, for example, gave up her microbiology career to devote her time to spotting unethical image manipulation, primarily in biomedical literature. And Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse in France, has worked with colleagues to study tortured phrases — awkward wording that often results from plagiarists using automated software to translate papers into English and publish them as their own.
APS News spoke with Wise about his detective work and hopes for the future.
What was your first step in investigating research integrity?
My interest began in summer 2021 during my doctoral studies. I got started by going to a paraphrase widget online and plugging in the term “heat transfer.” Out came the phrase “warmth move.” I searched for that in quotation marks using the Problematic Paper Screener, a tool developed by Cabanac and colleagues that sifts through published papers and flags any containing tortured phrases. Once you find a paper that’s got a tortured phrase, it probably has other phrases, and then that gives you a new term to search. It was easier to find papers in my own field because I know what the correct phrase should be. Every field has its own jargon.
What did you do once you found those suspicious studies?
I started to flag the papers on PubPeer, an online platform where scientists discuss scientific papers. Then I started to see what kinds of problems other people were flagging, including mass self-citations, citation manipulation [unethical attempts to boost one’s own citation counts], and all sorts of other ways in which one can corrupt the literature and commit misbehaviors. In some instances, you don’t need to be an expert or working in the field to identify that there’s something wrong.
My work has led to [one publisher] retracting around 850 papers, most of which are conference proceedings. A lot of those have multiple problems, including tortured phrases, citation manipulation, plagiarism, and manuscripts originating from paper mills [people or organizations that produce bogus studies in exchange for a fee so researchers can gain easy publication].
Is it getting easier for plagiarists to avoid using tortured phrases?
Even pre-ChatGPT paraphrasing software had advanced sufficiently that it didn’t produce many tortured phrases. With ChatGPT, there’s no need to paraphrase at all, so there will be none. However, there are thousands of published papers with tortured phrases, and I would like publishers to go back and clean up the literature where necessary.
Which aspect of misconduct is of most interest to you now?
I’ve come across many Facebook posts selling authorship slots for manuscripts that are already accepted to be published in journals. Some of these contain the paper’s title, so if you Google that a few months after, you can match the advertisement to the final published paper.
There are lots of different entities committing various levels of fraud. Some companies have their own brand, and then there are individual authors posting on Facebook that if someone will pay $1,000, they can be the first author of their paper.
Although some websites that sell authorship slots are sophisticated in not mentioning the titles or abstracts of forthcoming papers — making them difficult to track and match with the resulting papers — many aren’t so careful. For instance, they often include the title, authorship position, and journal impact factor, which you can cross-reference to confirm your suspicions. The higher the impact factor, the higher the price.
What trends have you spotted among researchers buying authorship slots?
Because some people are repeat customers for these sites, a pattern starts to emerge about their publication record. For instance, [a journal] recently retracted a paper after I revealed a Facebook post that advertised several author positions on it. One of its authors published 50 papers last year on a range of different disciplines, despite barely publishing anything before that.
What’s the solution to this and other kinds of misconduct?
What seems to be happening is that authorship slots are being sold after papers are accepted for publication, perhaps with minor revisions. When revisions are submitted, extra researchers are added on the author lists. Enough editors are sufficiently naive or complicit to allow many authors to be added on a single paper and not question why a physiotherapist in Thailand is suddenly on a paper about nanoscience with researchers from Iraq and Russia.
It would make it harder for people selling authorship if they had to submit a paper after selling their authorship slots, because the paper could get rejected and they would have to start the process again. Similarly, if authors are adding references after the paper has been accepted at the proof stage, this needs to be flagged and investigated.
What are you working on when you’re not doing detective work?
I’m looking for my next research position to continue my fluid dynamics research and trying to get my first permanent position. Such is the way of the early-career researcher. I intend to keep investigating research fraud. It doesn’t look like we’re going to run out of problematic research any time soon.
Dalmeet Singh Chawla is a freelance science journalist based in London.
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