Close-Up of Kale

Superfood Word Salad and Research Integrity

Publishing research and academic journals is a business that is both important and highly profitable. The business model for this industry could be a whole post of its own, but it’s worth noting that just four companies publish more than half of the world’s academic papers. Elsevier alone published more than half a million peer-reviewed articles in 2021 – by itself, approaching 20 percent of the world’s research papers. Its parent company, RELX, had sales of almost $10 billion in 2021. So academic publishers like Elsevier have a lot of market power and they seem to be using some of it to promote research integrity.

511 Retractions at Once

Just last week, one of these top four publishers – Wiley – announced they would be retracting 511 papers after an investigation:

“In June, the Hindawi Research Integrity Team identified irregularities in the peer review process in a small number of journals by leveraging new analytical capabilities underlying the reviewer activity database. All Hindawi journals employ a series of substantial integrity checks before articles are accepted for publication. Following thorough investigation, we identified that these irregularities in the peer review process were the result of suspicious and unethical activities. Since identifying this unethical activity and breach of our processes, we began proactively adding further checks and improving our processes and continue to do so.

“As a result of our initial investigation, we will be retracting 511 papers published since August 2020 across 16 journals due to unethical practices that undermine well-established research integrity norms.”

No two ways about it, that’s a lot. According to RetractionWatch, this was related to networks of editors and peer reviewers manipulating peer reviews.

A Superfood Word Salad for Kale

This brings to mind a retraction that our friend Colby Vorland prompted in May after he noted that the paper simply made no sense. Another commenter on Twitter called it a “word salad.” Then yet another person found reason to believe that the article was almost certainly a fake. Vorland expressed “pleasant surprise” to learn that the journal took the initiative to investigate and retract the article.

Good news is good news, and it’s heartening to see journals acting on this. Back in 2016, David Allison and colleagues described a “tragedy of errors” in trying to correct problems they discovered easily in published papers.

So academic publishers should indeed take their responsibility seriously for strengthening research integrity.

Click here for more on retraction of the kale word salad, here and here for more on the Wiley retraction of 511 papers announced last week.

Close-Up of Kale, photograph by Jeff Vanuga / USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

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October 7, 2022