In questioning the authenticity of research findings submitted for publication, I can look back on my 3 decades of serving as the editor of 3 different orthodontic publications. With the increased sophistication of electronic communication networks, one would think fraudulent publication practices are becoming nonexistent. From what I know, that is not the case.
One experience of deception occurred early in my term as editor of the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics , when I approved the publication of a rather short basic science article. It had been carefully reviewed, and we published it within a period of 6-8 months. Shortly after we published the article, I was contacted by an orthodontic reviewer for a European journal who expressed a specific concern. The article was the same as one just submitted to him for publication in another orthodontic journal, with 1 exception: the title had been altered. To make matters worse, within the month, I heard from another editor with similar news—the same article had also been submitted to an Asian orthodontic journal for publication.
You might think that it is unusual for an editor to discover this type of problem. If so, you are correct. In most situations, the first hint of premeditated deception is uncovered by a dedicated reviewer. Reviewers are selected to employ their years of experience related to a specific area of expertise. They are asked to read and understand the science being applied to a small niche of the overall topic being subjected to the experimental study. If the topic being studied is bonding adhesives (ie, comparing the bond strength of 2 adhesives), it is common for a journal to work with a few dental materials specialists across the globe. These specialists are always looking for new research on the specifics of bonding, as published in a wide variety of journals, and logically, they would be the first to recognize an article that might be a duplicate or even a fraudulent submission. In case you wonder, the publication of an identical research article is a very serious offense, often leading to redaction of the paper by a journal. The journal involved would also contact the university where the research was completed, and they would have the option of sanctioning the author, possibly leading to the loss of their position at the university. The price to be paid by any author who acts in this way is steep and often severe.
The identification of fake news or fake research submissions also rests almost solely upon a solid corps of reviewers. These individuals are very highly trained in specific fields of the specialty and have the ability and dedication to screen out a deception.
Fake news, as proliferated during and since the 2016 U.S. election, is often completely fabricated and is a very serious issue. Fake news, as we see it today, is corrosive. It misinforms the public, divides people against one another, leads to bad policy decisions, and can even induce people to take action against imaginary threats.
One might think that medical literature is immune to this kind of fakery, but it is not. Recent years have seen the appearance of journals from mainstream publishers that are based entirely on pseudoscience. On the surface, these publications look and act just like real scientific journals, but it’s all just pretend. The publishers of these journals presumably care more about their bottom line than about scientific integrity. They know that pseudoscientific journals will create a never-ending demand for fake breakthroughs and scientific-sounding studies that are built on a house of cards.
Scientific publishing giant Elsevier (publisher of the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics ) put out a total of 6 publications between 2000 and 2005 that were sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies. They looked like peer-reviewed medical journals, but they did not disclose the company sponsorship. Elsevier promptly conducted an internal review of its publishing practices after allegations came to light. At that time, Elsevier admitted that the company produced a pharmaceutical company–funded publication in the early 2000s without disclosing that the “journal” was corporately sponsored. Since that time, the company has admitted, “This was an unacceptable practice, and we regret that it took place.”
The key to responsibly keeping this problem in check belongs to the editor of any journal, as supported by thousands of hard-working and reliable associate editors and reviewers. Of all reviewers, 94% believe that after review and revision, a research article is greatly improved. They note that poor study design can be a major problem, and this is due often to a small sample size. Another problem is the selection of a topic that may not be novel or even similar to something that has already been published. And, of course, the article may even be inappropriate for the journal’s audience.
According to a study I participated in years ago, reviewers have the following reasons for rejecting studies as submitted for publication:
Poor study design often based on a small sample size.
The topic may not be novel, or it may be similar to an article already published.
The article is inappropriate for the readership of the journal.
The practice of publishing everything that hits an editor’s desk must end. Of even greater importance is the involvement of dedicated reviewers. Reviewers of this quality are out there, but they are most often known and identified by the associate editors of specialized scientific journals. These are most often the researchers who publish their findings regularly, speak internationally, and are not closely tied to the manufacturers.
Many journals prohibit the publication of editorials, letters to the editor, or traditional review articles by anyone with a financial conflict of interest. Behavioral economics shows us how easy it is to incentivize behavior. Food, gifts, flattery, common ground, and positive social relationships can contribute mightily to our thoughts and opinions. We are all susceptible. We all believe we are objective and can’t be bought, but at the same time, we also believe that others certainly can.
Most susceptible are those who think they are not.
Take all the time you need to think about that last statement!