When Open Peer Review covers scientific misconduct or… “The Purloined letter” of citation manipulation

On the 14th of June, 1974, Nature published a piece entitled “In defence of the anonymous referee”. It came as a a time when this anonymity was being questioned in limited but harsh debates. Referring to then recent works which underlined “reviewer bias,” critics stressed the extent to which anonymity contributed towards such bias, the discovery of which had a more wide-ranging consequence: it undermined confidence in the entire evaluation process1. Facing such criticisms, Nature reaffirmed the actual good will of reviewers and that anonymity allowed room for strong but well-founded criticism before concluding:

The tradition of depersonalisation in the assesment of manuscripts has, we believe, served scientific communinication well. There are obviously flaw in the system, but radical steps to remove these flaws might remove instead a lot which is good.

In the last 45 years, and especially in the last decade, Open peer review (OPR) has gained some supporters, would it be to prevent conflict of interest, to implement a vision of the scientific debate in communities or to get along the trend to transparency within the production of scholarly knowledge. But this increased interest in OPR has led to the implementation of multiple schemes in journals, to the point where it is difficult to know what a journal is actullaly implementing when it states using OPR. In a remarkable article, Tony Ross-Hellauer clarified the notion, distinguishing and naming separable practices2. We have selected the four most frequent ones here:

  1. Open identities: Authors and reviewers are aware of each other’s identity
  2. Open reports: Review reports are published alongside the relevant article.
  3. Open participation: The wider community are able to contribute to the review process.
  4. Open interaction: Direct reciprocal discussion between author(s) and reviewers, and/or between reviewers, is allowed and encouraged.

  1. Pontille, David, and Didier Torny. “The blind shall see! the question of anonymity in journal peer review.” Ada (2014). []
  2. Tony Ross-Hellauer. “What is open peer review? A systematic review.” F1000Research 6 (2017). []

The perfect hacking of journal peer review or… The fastest way to become a Highly Cited Researcher

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the names of great fraudsters have spread beyond the academic arenas, each one bringing their biographies, their practices and the astonished tale of the discovery of their misdeeds. This starisation of fraudsters should neither hide the existence of famous cases in the past1, nor the multitude of ordinary misdemeanors and misconduct daily taking place in the academic world, which is hardly different from other professional circles in this respect. Nevetheless, they deserve a place in the Hall of Hame of academic fraudsters; so, before addressing the case of our new champion Kuo-Chen Chou, let’s review a few exemplary figures of this Hall of Fame, in alphabetical order.

Yoshitaka Fujii (2012): enduring Japanese anesthesiologist who owns is world record holder for the number of articles retracted (183). He spent his career inventing data and despite a statistical analysis published in 2000 showing how “too nice” his numbers were, he was not really worried until 10 years later.2

Woo-Suk Hwang (2006) : amazing Korean veterinarian and biologist, specialized in stem cells and producer of the first human clone, announced by a publication in Science. After being accused of forcing his technicians to donate their eggs for his research, investigations revealed the total absence of human cloning. A national glory in South Korea and an international star, his public downfall was so brutal that he made the cover of Time Magazine.

Jan-Hendrik Schön (2002): industrious German physicist, working at Bell Labs on the limits of matter and life, able to co-author in less than two years seven papers in Nature, eight in Science and six in Physic Review. All of course have since been retracted, and it seems that all his research, including his thesis, was based more on his desire to stick to the expectations of theory or those of his colleagues than on the empirical results he claimed to have achieved.3

Diederik Stapel (2011) : extraordinary Dutch psychologist, whose social experiments always proved the hypotheses made… since they were never carried out, but fabricated on paper and computer. Denounced by a whistleblower from his team and 58 retracted articles later, he was the object of a sensitive New York Times portrait . His own production became an object of psychology of deception as his colleagues found small differences in style between his genuine articles and the fake ones.

From transparent peer review
to citation manipulation

These eminent members of the Hall of Fame, all men – women are an extremely small minority among the elected members – have produced “false science” but have neither massively plagiarized nor attacked the peer review system. They rather provided, as good forgers, the expected raw material to journals. However, over the last 10 years, there has been concern about how reviewers or publishers can indirectly influence the science produced, in a more subtle way. “Coerced citations”, “fake peer review” and “cartel citations” are all designations of practices that do not directly fudge the content of articles, but act on the margins by hacking into the journal peer review process.

So, the old criticisms about the misdeeds of anonymity in journal peer review4 were reborn at great expense and many debates about “transparent peer review” took place. Where in the past editors and authors were at the helm of these discussions, now the publishers are in charge and, above all, Elsevier. The company provided two in-house researchers with access to his back office and they were able to compare the bibliography of the manuscripts with those of the published articles and check whether added references were coauthored by reviewers of the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, the authors of When Peer Reviewers Go Rogue concluded that there was a manipulated citation, even if its level is quite low (0.79%).

At the same time, a research team led by the famous John Ioannidis sought to build a “clean” base of citations for the most cited researchers. For them, this meant being able to separate self-citations from the rest, and it was on this occasion that they made a surprising discovery: the staggering intensity in the level of self-citation of some colleagues. Indeed, as your level of citations rise, you expect that they are all the more coming from distant colleagues. Not for everybody:

Vaidyanathan, a computer scientist at the Vel Tech R&D Institute of Technology, a privately run institute, is an extreme example: he has received 94% of his citations from himself or his co-authors up to 2017 (…) He is not alone. The data set, which lists around 100,000 researchers, shows that at least 250 scientists have amassed more than 50% of their citations from themselves or their co-authors, while the median self-citation rate is 12.7% ((Nature, Hundreds of extreme self-citing scientists revealed in new database, 19th August 2019)).”

But then, what are the Highly Cited Researchers, whose numbers are one of the components of the Shanghai Ranking, actually doing? Are they renowned for their influential results or are they more adept at being manufacturers on the citation chain? Bibliometricians would say that a “high” self-citation rate is not necessarly a sign of fraud, but that a detailed inquiry woud be neeeded This is where we return to our newest member of the Hall of Fame, whose work is worthy of close consideration.

A perfect hacker,
always greedy for citations

It all starts with a mundane story: a reviewer asks for additional references in a manuscript. But the request itself is not so trivial: it consists of 35 references, the vast majority of which are co-signed by him, and he indicates that his recommandation to editors, on whether or not to accept the manuscript, will depend heavily on this inclusion. It should also be specified that it is not for a single review that this request is made, but for each of the manuscripts passed through his hands. In describing their decision to ban this unnamed reviewer, editors did not indicate how long this practice has existed. Indeed, it is unusual, to say the least, to request the addition of so many references, and one might question their own responsibility in this matter if it lasted as they reference to the “most recent reviews” seems to imply. To which they reply:

One might ask how this reviewer got away with submitting multiple reviews containing coercive requests for citation before being banned. The shortest explanation is that excessive self-citation demands are generally not seen as an ethical problem until a pattern is established, and a decentralized peer-review system is not amenable to detecting patterns“((Wren, Jonathan D., Alfonso Valencia, and Janet Kelso. “Reviewer-coerced citation: case report, update on journal policy and suggestions for future prevention.” (2019): 3217-3218.)).

And in fact they inquire in other journals, and that suggested the same pattern of behavirour for this reviewer. A year later, in early 2020, the investigation leads to an editorial in another journal, the Journal for Theoretical Biology, (JTB), which reveals perhaps the most complete case of manipulated citation to date. Indeed, the hacker is no longer a simple reviewer there, but a “handling editor” for JTB, which enables him to act at several stages of the manuscript, with a single objective: to accumulate citations.

  1. He took the charge of many manuscripts from his research centre to ensure that they are well treated (conflict of interest).
  2. He chose reviewers requested by the authors, or designated colleagues from his own centre (conflict of interest) or even reviewed them himself under a false name (ghost peer review).
  3. In many cases, with the return of the reviews, he would ask for the title of the article to be changed so that it explicitly refers to his own algorithm, as well as a discussion of his own work in the introduction and conclusion (coerced citations).
  4. As a result, he requested the addition of a very large number of references (up to more than 50) to the bibliography of the manuscript (coerced citations).
  5. Just before the acceptance of the manuscript, he was added as co-author of the article (gift authorship).

We therefore observe two complementary types of behaviour. On the one hand, hidden from the outside, it consists in hacking the flow of the peer review journal, capturing the evaluation process to ensure that the articles most “favourable” to its citation count are actually published – and sometimes with his coauthorship. On the other hand, visible to the authors and perhaps the editor-in-chief and publisher, the aim is to hack the byline, content and references of the manuscript by making imperative requests for inclusion. Thus, these ordinary manuscripts became articles loaded with citations from the hacker.

It can be noted that at this stage, the name of the reviewer is not given by JTB, which caused some to make educated guess on Twitter. News articles in Nature among others, soon follow and revealed his identity: Kuo-Chen Chou, a retired chinese-american biophysicist. We then learn that he has been for years a member of the Highly Cited Researcher “club”5. So, as usual, this extraordinary case will be treated as “rare”, counter-measures have been taken such as an algorithm written by one of the Bioinformatics editor. But the ordinary gaming will still happen, would it be in so-called predatory journals or “prestigious” publishers, with smarter colleagues less greedy on citations and not obsessed with the HCR club. Will you be one of them?6

  1. for example John Darsee, see Broad, William; Wade, Nicholas (1983), Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science, London: Century Publishing, ISBN0-7126-0243-7 []
  2. For a quick view of this case, see Pontille, David, and Didier Torny. “Behind the scenes of scientific articles: defining categories of fraud and regulating cases.” (2012). []
  3. He was the subject of a wonderful book, Plastic Fantastic, ISBN 978-0-230-22467-4 []
  4. See David Pontille and Didier Torny, “The blind shall see! the question of anonymity in journal peer review.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.4. doi:10.7264/N3542KVW (2014). []
  5. the Web of Science Group didn’t list him in 2019 as he had, like others, a high rate of self-citations but, as stated, “Although this list is updated and refreshed each year, a Highly Cited Researcher is always a Highly Cited Researcher—whether their name was included in 2013 or 2019.” []
  6. I am aware that this post contains two self-references but they won’t be counted in any database []
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