Retracted Research~II

Many papers rejected by reviewers for whatever reasons go on to be published in some other journal. The published paper is also rejected by the same journal if and when resubmitted a few months later. One classic case is instructive.

Retracted Research~II

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Many papers rejected by reviewers for whatever reasons go on to be published in some other journal. The published paper is also rejected by the same journal if and when resubmitted a few months later. One classic case is instructive. Chuck Ross, a Los Angeles writer, submitted a typed verbatim copy of Steps, a 1969 award winning novel by Jerzy Kosinski with a different title and authorship, to 14 major publishers in 1977.

The plan was to fathom the difficulties that unknown writers encounter in getting their work published. Shockingly, all publishers, including Random House, the original publisher of Steps, rejected the manuscript. The test case vindicates the questions about the reliability and bias of the review process. Reviewers are often engaged on the basis of their personal networks. Everyone is not trained or skilled. Moreover, the so called “hyper prolific reviewers” tend to have cornered the bulk of reviews ~ one of the ten such reviewers on the Publons platform reviewed a paper a day for sixteen years; another reviewed 812 papers in 2023. A 2018 survey by Publons found that four percent of reviewers are doing 25 per cent of reviews. Journal publishing operates on goodwill, in the form of unpaid review of manuscript by expert volunteers. Over the years, many have become disinclined to accept review requests. One managing editor of the American Sociological Association lamented that while earlier it used to take three or four tries to find a willing reviewer, now it takes around eight. A relatively minuscule pool of reviewers for many journals leads to not only overload but also obfuscation of diversity of perspectives and authors. The review work is basically voluntary or honorary, underrecognised, and less incentivized. Being one human activity, the review process is also enmeshed with individual-level limitations and biases in every conceivable sense. Notwithstanding the ingrained biases and vulnerabilities, the peer review system must not be discarded; the resultant upshot would be more catastrophic.

Given the deficiencies, the imperative is to organise the process robustly. The incidence of retraction is more of an indicator, like a laboratory test report, that informs the extent of the malice and warns about the impending disaster unless and until the causes are comprehended and reparatory interventions are initiated. The deluge of phony research publications is closely related to the policy emphasis or weightage on research and publications as measures of individual competency, academic progression, and institutional excellence Academics across the world are now strongly incentivized to publish more and more papers for career leverage. Consequently, the demand for publishable papers has spiked exponentially. The higher education policy in India is according a premium on research and the quantity and quality of publications. The cumulative score on publication and award is the integrated parameter right from recruitment, appraisal for promotion, sanction of research project, to institutional ranking and accreditation.


The UGC mandate that every Ph.D. student has to publish at least one paper in a peer reviewed journal before submission of the thesis has been waived only by November 2022 notification. Academics in particular and higher education institutions in general are now swayed to have as many research grants and publications as possible to boost individual profiles and institutional rankings. Thus, a four-fold jump in the retraction of fake papers has been observed in India since the introduction of the NIFR ranking in 2015. The end, not the means, is thus getting undue prominence.

Personal interest or self-aggrandizement is overtaking professional ethics. The growing number of purportedly specialised and peer reviewed journals is thus catering to the consistent demand by publishing papers prepared in one way or another. The opinion survey among the research community conducted by India Retraction Watchdog offers few insights into the cause of the inflammation. 51 per cent of academics considered the ranking parameter responsible for the outpouring of crooked publications. 35 per cent attributed it to the unethical inclination among the researchers.

And 10 per cent held the absence or lack of punitive action against those already caught responsible for the misconduct. The publication peril is strongly associated with the dynamics of demand and supply. The policy emphasis inflates the demand and triggers intense competition among academies for positions, prestige, grants etc. Such mega demand leads to manipulation of the screening process (peer review), the use of sophisticated technology-driven tools for bypassing the investigatory eyes and intensification of the advent of new as well as alternative outlets from conventional and brand new (business) enterprises.

Accordingly, the supply line is bursting with paper mills and predatory journals, precipitating a heyday of fictitious publications. The dictum of ‘publish or perish’~ the phrase initially coined by Archibald Cary Coolidge ~ compels the academies to use any means, fair or foul, to prop up their academic portfolio. Academic ethics thus goes for a toss. Illustratively, the phenomenon of sham scientific papers has its roots in China where paper mills began to ghostwrite supposedly scientific papers for professionals in science and technology for a hefty fee. Since then, the incidence and network of paper mills have spread all around. Noorden’s analysis suspects that about 2 per cent of all published scientific papers in 2023 appear to have been produced by paper mills. In India, iTrilon, which used its WhatsApp platform to hawk the authorship of ready-made scientific papers with assured acceptance using its networks with journals, had to shut down its ‘shop’ in January, 2024 following an investigation by Retraction Watch.

As Wiley, the lead villain in the retraction saga of 2023, has confessed presciently, a storm is brewing all over and the publishing world is under siege from the paper mills. The publication houses have little idea and capability about how to cope with or tackle the onslaught, particularly when the technology and the burgeoning tools are refining their modus operandi. China and India are the biggest contributors to the escalating retractions and the cleaning-up measures taken therein are likely to determine the future.

The first ever nation-wide self-review initiated by the Chinese government, after considering the three-fourth proportion of Chinese co-authors among the 14,000 retraction notices issued in 2023 as a blot on the country’s reputation, is expected to have ripple effects all around. Academic institutions cannot shy away from proliferating malpractices and they should endorse provision for penalties, or at least dress down for misconduct.

When the offenders remain scot-free and even go up in the academic elevator, many others may become more enthused or carefree to jump on the unethical bandwagon. One way of making the peer review system robust is to monetize the review process and hold the reviewers accountable for their review appraisals. Another transparent yet complex alternative may be to embrace the “pre-print” review system.

When the perpetrators are academics, the sanitising course of action can come only from fellow academics. It devolves on Indian academics to put the ethical praxis in the mainstream of intellectual exercise and embrace the role of a sleuth by shunning the habitual inertia to expose the misconduct of their brethren.

(The writer is former Associate Professor of Political Science, Tufanganj College, Cooch Behar, West Bengal)