Journal retracts 30 likely paper mill articles after investigation published by Retraction Watch – Retraction Watch

Brian Perron

A journal has retracted 30 papers that “could be linked to a criminal paper mill.” The move comes six and a half months after Retraction Watch published an investigation into the operation. 

The investigation, by Brian Perron of the University of Michigan, high school student Oliver Hiltz-Perron, and Bryan Victor of Wayne State University, identified nearly 200 published papers with apparent links to a Russian company named International Publisher. Many of those articles were published in the International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, or iJET, and the researchers notified the journal of their findings. 

In an announcement about the retractions and each retraction notice, iJET editors specifically cite the investigation and Perron’s communications. 

A representative retraction notice states: 

This article has been retracted by the iJET editorial team:

The article on this page has been associated with fraudulent publication practices after its publication in iJET. The work could be linked to a criminal paper mill selling authorships and articles for publication in several online journals to paying customers.

The iJET editorial team was initially informed about the paper mill’s fraudulent activities by Dr. Perron (University of Michigan) and his team on 08/03/2021. The investigation results were published on RetractionWatch under https://retractionwatch.com/author/perronetal/ on 12/20/2021. Based on the evidence provided by Dr. Perron and his team, the iJET editorial team considerably questions the paper’s scientific integrity and legitimacy as part of the scientific body. Finally, iJET decided to retract the paper.

Neither iJET, Online-Journals.org, nor IAOE stands in any contact with the paper mill’s fraudulent activities. We condemn such procedures and dissociate ourselves from any person or entity, which is knowingly or unknowingly part of it.

In an announcement about the 30 retractions, the journal’s editors elaborated on what happened: 

Our first communication with Dr. Perron, in which he explained both his investigative activities and his results with regard to iJET, happened on 08/03/2021. The investigation results were published on RetractionWatch under https://retractionwatch.com/author/perronetal/ on 12/20/2021. Based on the evidence provided by Dr. Perron and his team, the iJET editorial team considerably questions the respective papers’ scientific integrity and legitimacy as part of the scientific body. Finally, iJET decided to retract a total number of thirty papers based on Dr. Perron’s information; covering publications from iJET Vol. 15 No. 13 (2020) to iJET Vol. 16 No. 08. (2021). We will also retract any paper that might be additionally connected to the paper mill’s activities in the future.

In his article on RetractionWatch, Dr. Perron included an official comment by the iJET editorial team (send to him via email on 09/27/2021), which reads as follows:

For over 15 years, the interdisciplinary International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET) aims to focus on the exchange of relevant trends and research results as well as the presentation of practical experiences gained while developing and testing elements of technology-enhanced learning. So it aims to bridge the gap between pure academic research journals and more practical publications. In this field, the journal’s integrity is our focal concern to ensure that both authors and readers can trust and learn from the work published in our journal. When we were contacted by Dr. Perron’s team and learned about the working results concerning a professional paper mill undermining good scientific practice, we were at the same time astonished about the fraudulent procedure and thankful for getting to know about it. The effort and dedication to detail Dr. Perron and his team put into the investigation is invaluable for us as a journal and goes beyond the realms of possibilities in terms of background checks we have as editors. However, each of the manuscripts published in our journal undergoes a double-blind peer-review process and goes through a process of three editorial checks. The fact that it was still possible to place potentially fraudulent papers in the journal, deeply upsets us. We as the journal leadership can only condemn such procedures and dissociate ourselves from any person or entity, which is part of it! However, the revelations have made us rethink our internal process substantially. In reaction to the unveiled procedures, we immediately informed our editorial board members and shared a list with potential hints to identify further fraudulent manuscripts. Furthermore, we checked every submission in the current review or editorial process and rejected manuscripts matching these hints. To prevent any further critical submissions and address fraud, the additional steps we are taking include but are not limited to running internal workshops with editors and reviewers to detect fraudulent submissions, developing a blacklist of individuals and institutions that are clearly connected to the paper mill, and put a particular focus on checking authors groups’ credentials. Following these steps, we are very positive to detect further fraudulent submissions and ensure our journal’s integrity.

As stated in the comment above, we are very thankful for the information provided by Dr. Perron and his team. The results presented left us shocked and provoked swift actions with regard to the iJET editorial process. We immediately informed our editorial board members with helpful hints on how to detect respective fraudulent papers to prevent further publication. In addition to that, we strengthened our overall editorial process. Since then, any paper showing hints of fraudulent activities has been rejected right away and will be in the future.

We as iJET editorial team want to express our deepest apology for both falling victim to the criminal activities of the identified paper mill and for any inconveniences that these revelations might have caused for our authors.

The journal blanked out the pages of the original articles, rather than leaving them in place with watermarks, as is recommended by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

In their investigation, Perron and his group identified titles of papers advertised for sale on the paper mill’s website and articles with similar titles that had subsequently been published and also had other red flags for potential fraud. 

They found 29 such papers published in iJET, nine of them in the same issue of the journal, and contacted the journal editors as well as the authors listed on all the papers. They also identified six papers with possible links to the paper mill that were published in MDPI journals. 

Perron told Retraction Watch he had qualified appreciation for the iJET editors’ response and frustration with MDPI: 

Having a lot of experience publishing in the social sciences, the evidence we found was quite compelling. I think the Editors could have taken these steps a lot more quickly.  However, they are commended for ultimately taking the necessary steps to clean up the scientific literature, especially since they are the only open-access publisher to take such steps.  

I am disappointed with the response of MDPI, as they have had the same type of evidence for roughly the same time.  In my last correspondence with the Head of Publication Ethics at MDPI on March 12, Damaris Critchlow declined to provide an official follow-up statement on the status of their investigation and response.  The MDPI article that was highlighted as an example of potential fraud has not been retracted or marked with an expression of concern.  This article has been cited by three articles in MDPI since MDPI received evidence of potential fraud on August 27, 2021.  To me, I don’t think MDPI is taking the issue of fraud seriously.

We have reached out to an MDPI representative and will update with anything we learn.

Victor, of Wayne State University, pointed out that the journals’ publishing models were part of the story: 

As open-access, pay-to-publish journals become increasingly popular in the dissemination of academic research, we need to consider the profit motives of these publishing organizations. Earning hundreds or thousands of dollars for each published article generates a disincentive to rigorously screen submissions for evidence of fraud. iJET took the admirable step of retracting articles with strong evidence of academic misconduct, but the likelihood of fraud in academic publishing will continue to increase as groups like MDPI expand this pay-to-publish model. 

Update, 7/6/22, 1830 UTC: iJET editor in chief Dominik May tells us:

Even though we do not want fully enclose all the hints we have worked out to identify fraudulent paper on our side (simply to prevent this or other paper mills to adapt their activities to our measures in the future), the guidelines include keeping an eye on and making sense of authors and in particular authorship teams, developing a watchlist of both authors and institutions involved in previous fraudulent papers, and checking the authors comments to the editorial team. For the latter, we identified some pretty clear hints for fraudulent activities. In terms of plagiarism, we have been working with a respective tool for years already.

So far, we do have the feeling that our measures work quite well. Although we do have to admit that a full and in-depth background check for both authors and manuscripts is pretty difficult and beyond what a journal can do. Therefore, we are very grateful for the work Dr. Perron and his team provided over the last couple months.

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