Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific processBioMed Central is retracting 43 papers, following their investigation into 50 papers that raised suspicions of fake peer review, possibly involving third-party companies selling the service.
In November 2014 we wrote about fake peer reviews for Nature; at that point there had been about 110 retractions across several journals. The addition of 16 retractions by Elsevier for the same reason, and today’s 43 from BMC, brings retractions resulting from the phenomenon up to about 170.
BMC has also contacted institutions regarding 60 additional papers that were rejected for publication, but seem to be part of the same kind of scam. Regarding the third-party agents, BMC senior editor of scientific integrity Elizabeth Moylan writes:
Some of the manipulations appear to have been conducted by third-party agencies offering language-editing and submission assistance to authors. It is unclear whether the authors of the manuscripts involved were aware that the agencies were proposing fabricated reviewers on their behalf or whether authors proposed fabricated names directly themselves.When we asked for more information on these third parties, a representative for the journal told us:
We’ve been told some things in confidence that we’re not reporting on our blog, and the reason we’re not is we don’t have enough evidence to point fingers. What we’ve done all along is point out the patterns that we have noticed, and we’ve talked to other publishers and we’ve talked to [the Committee on Publishing Ethics] to make sure that people know how we’re stopping them.In an attempt to limit submission of fake peer reviewers, BMC has turned off the automated system that let authors provide contact information for potential reviewers, which we tapped in our Nature story as a major contributor to the problem. Authors will still be able to suggest reviewers in their cover letters.
BMC has also sent an email to editors of BMC journals that addresses the retractions and how peer review suggestions will function without an automated option:
We appreciate that this functionality is useful and timesaving, but we believe it is the ease with which author suggested reviewer suggestions can be ‘clicked’ through that made it possible for authors or third party agencies to manipulate our systems. It would not be appropriate to switch the facility back on for some journals and not for others, so with this in mind and in the absence of any secure means of protecting against such manipulation across all of our 250+ journals we have made the decision to leave this functionality switched off.Here’s the text BMC is using for the notices, most of which have gone live:
Authors will still be able to suggest potential peer reviewers in their cover letter on submission. We are updating the submission system to inform authors on how they can suggest reviewers and also updating our Information for Authors pages to tell authors that they may use their cover letter to suggest reviewers, but that they should provide institutional email addresses where possible, or information which will help the editor to verify the identity of the reviewer. Editors who find author suggestions useful and are happy to implement some simple checks on the validity of the suggestions are welcome to ask authors to suggest potential peer reviewers in their cover letter.
The Publisher and Editor regretfully retract this article  because the peer-review process was inappropriately influenced and compromised. As a result, the scientific integrity of the article cannot be guaranteed. A systematic and detailed investigation suggests that a third party was involved in supplying fabricated details of potential peer reviewers for a large number of manuscripts submitted to different journals. In accordance with recommendations from COPE we have retracted all affected published articles, including this one. It was not possible to determine beyond doubt that the authors of this particular article were aware of any third party attempts to manipulate peer review of their manuscript.We are waiting on the full list of retracted papers, but in the meantime, here’s what comes up from a Google search of the retraction notice. We found at least seven in the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery and Research.