Housekeeping & Self References

A new journal, a new bogus review: again, the culprits are banned

This is an update on an earlier post, A case of stolen professional identity, which is just a little too long to add directly to the original post.

Last month I received a request for review. But it wasn’t just any request: the title looked suspiciously similar to the title of a paper whose review I had been asked to confirm back in March. In the original incident (described here), the culprits were found to have created a false gmail account for me and submitted my name as a reviewer with that false email account. They were banned from that journal (let’s call it Journal1). I really didn’t think they would try again, at least not with the same fake review setup (specifically, my name and a false email account).

But they did.

Journal2 sent me a standard review request in June. It turns out that behind the scenes, a bogus email address was used, though I’m not sure it was the same one used for Journal1. The affiliation that was provided to Editor2 by the author of the submission appeared strange to him, and so Editor2 searched for me online and found my institutional address. And, as with last time, mine wasn’t the only identity used fraudulently. I noticed the similarities, and I put Editor1 in touch with Editor2, they compared notes, and discovered it was the same paper, the same authors, and the same trick being attempted again.

Turns out fake emails weren’t the only fake thing about them. Though I don’t know the details, I believe there were also fake phone numbers and perhaps fake affiliations.

The authors have been formally banned from Journal2 (as happened with Journal1), and I have to say I wanted to cheer when I saw the words “Please note that this type of behavior is not acceptable in science and will not be tolerated.” Editor2 is going to move things forward, including bringing it to the attention of the Committee on Publication Ethics. I am also looking into ways to take away the false gmail account from whoever owns it, so that hopefully at least that permutation of my name cannot be used again. However, that isn’t a practical solution in the long term, as there are many, many possible permutations.

I had hoped it wouldn’t happen again, but it has, and quickly. Seems like the single thing that would help the most, while needing the smallest change to the existing system, would be to require institutional addresses. Additionally, open peer review might help, though you’d have to do a regular search to ensure that someone didn’t publish an open peer review pretending to be you. My thanks go to both Editor1 and Editor2 for allowing me to, once again, write about these experiences. With knowledge comes great responsibility, yes, but also forewarning.

And I hope it doesn’t happen again. Again.

Housekeeping & Self References

A Case of Stolen Professional Identity

…or when a bogus review with my name on it was submitted to a journal.

Update: Please read how the same people tried it again, with another journal, in this post.

At the beginning of last month, just as I was starting to work part-time on my PhD again after maternity leave, a curious and worrying thing happened. My name – and, as such, my professional identity – was stolen and used in a bogus review for a journal submission.

How it Happened

The story begins with an email I received from an Editor asking me to confirm that I had recently submitted a review to his Journal. He was suspicious, as the email address provided for me was a gmail account rather than my institutional address. While my name and affiliation in the review were correct, the gmail address was not mine. A little while later, the Editor let me know that other reviewer email addresses were equally dubious, and at least one other person had confirmed that their professional identity had also been stolen and used to create one of the other reviews for the same submission.

The review itself was badly written and very short, and I am indebted to the Editor for catching the oddness of the email address and for delving into this situation so deeply. Despite all the help provided by author and reviewer databases, a little personal attention by editors goes a long way. This Journal’s rules for reviewing are pretty standard, and as with many journals, they allow authors to submit reviewer suggestions. I don’t think this practice should be stopped, as many research communities are relatively specialised or small, and you are more likely to get suitable reviewers if the authors are able to suggest options. However, abuse of this system is possible, and I would be very surprised if nothing like this scam has happened before.

The Outcome

It was caught early here, just after the reviews were submitted. The culprits were banned. Though I’m not privy to whether or not any further legal action can or will be taken, at least there was a positive result for the Journal. The only way it could have been caught earlier is if the odd email addresses were noticed at the point the reviewer names were suggested, rather than once the reviews came in. I sincerely hope there aren’t other bogus reviews out there in other journals using anyone else’s name.

Personally Speaking…

I’d like to compliment the Editor and his Journal for discovering this unprofessional behaviour early on and for taking action. While it is a kind of dubious honour to be selected for such a scam (the scammers must think I’m a good reviewer choice?), it has been an uncomfortable experience for me personally. I expend a reasonable amount of effort on maintaining my professional online appearance. A search on my name retrieves mainly work-related hits, and this is a useful aid for both sharing work and finding other like-minded researchers. I assume this is how the scammers came up with my name, and the names of the others whose professional personae were misused in the same way. Such sub-standard reviews could harm the perception of the real researcher in the eyes of the journals concerned, and this is a worry.

Catching the Crooks

This isn’t a post on the purpose or usefulness of peer review. Whatever your views (and some are quite negative), the process is firmly entrenched in our community, at least for now. But how should we be working to prevent such scams in future?

Should journals require institutional email addresses? Should journals not accept email addresses from authors at all, and search for reviewers’ addresses independently? Certainly there are few reasons why honest reviewers would be using a non-institutional address, but is it a little too much to force such a constraint?

Additionally, there are many proponents of getting rid of anonymity in the refereeing process. Indeed, PLoS journals encourage reviewers to name themselves. Would be more difficult to perform this kind of a scam if the name of the reviewer were visible? What if the scammers managed to succeed, and the wronged party never noticed their name on that review, visible for all to see? It could be a real blow for professional reputations.

A Final Note

I’m happy that the wrongdoers were caught, and that the Journal and Editor were open enough about what happened to encourage me to write about it: they hope that this openness will make it harder for people to perform the same stunt again. Bad reviews lead to substandard papers being accepted, which lowers the standing of whatever journal publishes them: a bad outcome for the whole community.

Hopefully this will be a timely warning to others, as I’ve never heard of it happening before. Please let me know if you’ve ever had a similar experience, as I’d be interested to hear about it.

One final thought: having written a review in my name, do you think these scammers could write my PhD thesis for me too? Hmmm, perhaps not such a good idea after all….

What are your ideas? How could such a scam be prevented in future? Let me know about your suggestions on this topic, or your own experiences. Is this more common than we think? You can contact me via the comments on this post or via the various social networking methods I use. Further information is available from my About page.

Meetings & Conferences

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: A View of Working in Science from the Publishing Side of the Fence, BSB09

There were a number of workshops running in parallel – I decided to visit "Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: A View of Working in Science from the Publishing Side of the Fence", run by Chris Surridge, Nature, Scientific Editor. These are my notes of that session.

Wants to convince us that journal editors are human beings, too. Science journalism is a product we all use. We produce papers – these are generally considered the final end product. Therefore it is important to understand the process involved in scientific publishing.

About Chris Surridge: PhD in biophysics. Specifically, the x-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry, and did his PhD in microtubule assembly. He's worked at Nature for 14-15 years. How did he get there? After some postdoc work, he had a decision to make. He didn't want to be an eternal postdoc, for example. Saw an advert for a job as an editor of Nature. Got offered a job with Nature structural biology. He's also worked on PLoS, and PLoS One.

Why publish in a particular journal? Impact factor? Good fit? Right audience? Resulting status? Supervisor says so? But in general, it just comes down to limitations of resources of the journal, and not everyone who tries to get published will get published in their journal of choice. Also, many journals don't want to publish too many, and have their impact factor suffer as a result. Is it an artificial scarcity? Yes, he says, there is a degree of it in the publishing world (though it is his opinion that Nature and Science don't do this much).

So, for whatever reason, journals are limited in the number of papers they can publish each week. Nature's resources mean that they can only really publish 10-11 biological science papers per week, and they get about 150 submissions per week. So, there is quite a lot of attrition. The job of the manuscript editor is to use the peer-review system and their understanding to sift through to get the most appropriate papers for their journals.

Papers come in and are assigned to a subject area, and then an editor (either full time or academic editors who do it part time). From reading it, you try to gauge its relevance, how many questions it answers, etc. He's not really worried about how it will be picked up in the press, and he doesn't really look to closely at the names on the paper: it really *isn't* easier for big shots to get papers published. The simple answer is that there is a reason big shots became big shots (e.g. the quality of their work).

This is exactly what you do when you are given a paper to do in a journal club. Then it moves into the more formal area of the peer review. Not everything gets sent out for peer review. There is an empirical rule that, in general, a journal publishes about half the papers it sends out for peer review (holds mainly true, but not completely). The capacity of a nature editor is about 10-15 papers of his own and about 10 reading of his colleagues. In PLoS, it's very similar. If it gets rejected without review, generally it's because the editor feels that, even if true, it's not appropriate for the journal. In general, they don't make very technical decisions – that's left up to the peer reviewer. Hence, rejection letters before review tend to be bland.

Editors tend to be harder on papers where the subject area is something they are very familiar with. Chris started working in the area he knew, but quickly branched out – he says there's nothing like 10-20 papers a week in subject area to get you up to speed quickly in whole other areas.

So, back to the next step in the process: peer review. Referee comments tell you technical quality. The referees should tell the editor: whether or not the paper *true* and accurate; whether or not it is as surprising as the editor thinks it is. The technical accuracy is what you really need the referees for. Of course, people who have worked in a subject area, as much as they wish or try to be, are not completely unbiased. Therefore, it's a good idea not to rely on one referee. If you choose 2, then chances are they disagree with each other. Therefore the ideal minimal number is 3. The more referees you add, the more conflicting opinions you'll have, so you don't want too many, because it is harder to make a decision.

Some referees are better at determining technical aspects, and others are good at the knowledge of the system in question – therefore it's a balancing act to get the right sort of referees. Once accepted, there is a bit of a bargaining session between the authors and the requested changes from the referees: in this case, the editor acts as mediator. Finally, the editors have to ensure that the finished version is something that fits within the constraints of the journals.

In summary, filter (editor) -> peer review (referees) -> filter (editor)-> tweak (authors, editors, subeditors) -> publish.

Q: What does Open Access (OA) mean in publishing? They are freely-available, and copyright is retained by the author, but it is published under a license that allows reuse with attribution. What it isn't is a publishing model, and it doesn't have anything to do with editorial standards (i.e. OA doesn't say anything about the editorial policy).

These days, scientific publishing is virtually all on the internet. Did a quick straw poll: how many of you read a real paper version of a journal in the last 5 papers you read? Two, one was nature and one was Science. Other than that, no-one. This sort of thing is especially useful for methods, where you don't get the full methods in the paper version because there is no room.

2-3 years ago, Nature tried out open peer review (refereeing online). It had been pioneered by Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry (some name like that). Anyone can write a report. After a certain amount of time, the editors decide whether or not to publish. What Nature found was that no-one came and commented.

There is a different version of open peer review that is where the peer review is normal, but the referees give up their anonymity and allow their comments to be published. Some journals do this successfully.

Q: What qualifications? You need to be a scientist 🙂 But there are no exact qualifications, just reply to job advertisement. Most journal editors have to have a PhD (didn't use to be like that). Research experience is taken into consideration, but the amount is variable. However, there's no way to have editorial skills without doing the job: they look at people's potential. If you get interviews, then you're sent texts prior to the interview.

He also said that latex submissions are hard for many journals to handle. Those that are completely latex are fine, but allowing multiple types of submissions are hard. Also, the conversion from latex to the actual software used to create the print version of the journal is not easy.

Tips: give your paper some context; write for the journal audience (specific or broad); don't overreach on your broad statements of applicability; cover letters are incredibly important – it's the first thing he reads – and that cover letter is your (as the author) personal contact with the editor; use the cover letter to try to focus the editor's attention on the bits you think are important.

Q: Do journal editors shape science? Almost certainly yes – they choose what gets published (at some level).

Personal Comments: This was a very interesting and useful workshop, giving us an opportunity to know how the editing process works. Thanks!

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else's. I'm happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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