Numerous recent reports have highlighted the problems caused by published articles that originated from paper mills. Simon Linacre asks what these 21st Century mills do and what other dangers could lurk in the future.
For those of us who remember life before the internet, and have witnessed its all-encompassing influence rise over the years, there is a certain irony in the idea of recommending a Wikipedia page as a trusted source of information on academic research. In the early days of Jimmy Wales’ huge project, whilst it was praised for its utility and breadth, there was always a knowing nod when referring someone there as if to say ‘obviously, don’t believe everything you read on there.’ Stories about fake deaths and hijacked pages cemented its reputation as a useful, but flawed source of information.
However, in recent years those knowing winks seem to have subsided, and in a way, it has become rather boring and reliable. We no longer hear about Dave Grohl dying prematurely and for most of us, such is our level of scepticism we can probably suss out if anything on the site fails to pass the smell test. As a result, it has become perhaps what it always wanted to be – the first port of call for quick information.
That said, one would hesitate to recommend it to one’s children as a sole source of information, and any researcher would think twice before citing it in their work. Hence the irony in recommending the following Wikipedia page as a first step towards understanding the dangers posed by paper mills: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_paper_mill. It is the perfect post, describing briefly what paper mills are and citing updated sources from Nature and COPE on the impact they have had on scholarly publishing and how to deal with them.
For the uninitiated, paper mills are third party organisations set up to create articles that individuals can submit to journals to gain a publication without having to do much or even any of the original research. Linked to their cousin the essay mill which services undergraduates, paper mills could have generated thousands of articles that have subsequently been published in legitimate research journals.
What the reports and guidance from Nature and COPE seem to suggest is that while many of the paper mills have sprung up in China and are used by Chinese authors, recent changes in Chinese government policy moving away from strict publication-counting as performance measurement could mitigate the problem. In addition, high-profile cases shared by publishers such as Wiley and Sage point to some success in identifying transgressions, leading to multiple retractions (albeit rather slowly). The problems such articles present is clear – they present junk or fake science that could lead to numerous problems if taken at face value by other researchers or the general public. What’s more, there are the worrying possibilities of paper mills increasing their sophistication to evade detection, ultimately eroding the faith people have always had in peer-reviewed academic research. If Wikipedia can turn round its reputation so effectively, then perhaps it’s not too late for the scholarly publishing industry to act in concert to head off a similar problem.