Our cross-sectional analysis of all papers retracted because from paper mills up to June 2022, identified from the Retraction Watch database, suggests that these paper mill retractions are increasing in frequency. Almost all of the authors of these articles were from China and were mostly affiliated with hospitals. The median time to retract a stationery paper was close to two years and increased with the ranking of the journal in which it was published, so the higher the Journal Citation Reports impact factor, the longer the time to to retraction was short. These articles affect legitimate journals and do not appear to be exclusive to predatory journals. In addition, this study has shown the impact and visibility of these retracted papers because some have been highly cited, with the potential consequences that entails. To our knowledge, this is the first study to analyze the growing phenomenon of paper shrinkage and its characteristics.
Our results suggest that the posting of stationery items increased between 2017 and 2019, when approximately 5-10 were posted and ultimately removed for this reason per 100,000 posts. In 2020, the number of identified stationery papers published in the scientific literature fell sharply. This decrease can be explained by several reasons. First, articles published between 2020 and 2022 that could potentially be identified for retraction have not yet been identified or retracted. Retraction of an article takes a long time, and other retractions may appear in the future. Secondly, following surveys launched in early 2020 by a number of publishers and researchers12, the scientific community has become aware of the problem and guidelines have been published to help publishers identify these articles.4 Even if these guidelines do not allow stationery paper to be unequivocally recognized, they allow screening and identification of papers from stationery. Therefore, the numbers could be smaller than they would have been because scientific journals have improved their methods of identification during editorial review and peer review, thereby preventing publication. Third, the increased attention given to this type of fraud may also have deterred authors from using the services of paper mills, due to the consequences of scientific fraud, particularly in certain countries such as China13. factory organizations to change the way they operate, thus preventing detection.14
Although this issue is relatively new, especially in America and Europe, in recent years the use of these types of organizations has become widespread in other countries, such as China.1015 China has encouraged its researchers to publish articles in exchange for money and career promotions. .16 In addition, medical students at Chinese universities are required to produce a scientific paper to graduate.15 In fact, these organizations openly advertise their services on the Internet and maintain a presence on university campuses, not only in China but also in other countries. countries, such as Russia.815
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the paper retracted to be stationery comes from that same country. These results are in line with the conclusions of other researchers and editors of scientific journals, although stationery papers have been reported in other countries, such as Iran or Russia.81217 The activity of the largest stationery organization of Russia, International Publisher, was recently recognized.810 Although this stationery has published approximately 1,000 articles, its own website advertises that more than 5,000 authors have purchased co-authorship of at least one article.8
Additionally, we note that most of the authors of the identified papermakers were affiliated with hospitals, which is consistent with previous research.15 Perhaps the main reason for this is that Chinese physicians are not affiliated with medical colleges. medicine, but to hospitals. It should be noted that the pressure to publish is greater in the biomedical sciences than in other specialties and that publications are generally required to obtain a university degree or promotion in China.15
Most stationery articles have been published in journals of pharmacy and clinical medicine, but many of them have also been published in basic science journals, such as cellular and molecular biology or biochemistry. Therefore, this problem does not only affect the fields of clinical medicine. This research did not focus on specific analysis whether stationery articles are published more frequently on clinical medicine or basic research topics. We are of the opinion that this aspect should be the subject of further analysis. According to our results, no major variation over time has been observed in the topics covered by the stationery papers so far. However, the latest COPE report indicates that this pattern may change, for example in thematic areas or types of journals, over time.18
The main problem that stationery articles pose to editors and reviewers of scientific journals is the difficulty of identifying them through the peer review process, because the articles appear legitimate. Analysis of images in a manuscript has been identified as one possible strategy for detecting stationery papers, as most images tend to be manipulated or duplicated, or both.14 Although different software is capable to detect image manipulation, stationery papers often use images (or archival images)519 because they are more difficult to detect than manipulated images. Currently, no software is able to reliably detect image duplication, leaving this task to editors and reviewers. That said, however, not all articles contain images for scrutiny. Another strategy for filtering out questionable papers is the Problematic Paper Screener software. This software identifies so-called “tortured sentences”, i.e. unusual sentences instead of established ones, which could be an indicator of suspected scientific misconduct. as a tool for detecting suspicious items.18
With the aim of preventing and detecting scientific misconduct, some countries already have specific offices and bodies that deal with aspects related to scientific integrity, but many others do not have such structures.21 Countries that do not have a body or policies governing scientific misconduct are at increased risk of producing fraudulent articles.22 Countries such as Denmark, Sweden and China have laws against scientific fraud. Ironically, China has the toughest penalties for search fraud. The paucity of consequences that scientific misconduct has historically had in this country may have played a significant role in increasing unethical behavior, including the use of stationery.15 In 2018, after several scandals in China , the law against scientific fraud has been reinforced by the imposition of sanctions that go beyond the purely academic and professional sphere23. This tougher approach seems to have started to pay off, and as of December 2021, more than 300 researchers have reportedly been sanctioned for scientific misconduct. Among other things, the sanctions included the revocation of university degrees and the cancellation of promotions.24 Since virtually all stationery paper originates in China, this recent sanctions policy may have contributed to the reduction in the number of stationery since 2020 .
Strengths and limitations
This study had limitations. Withdrawals of paper from the paper industry continue over time. For this reason, our investigation will need to be updated over time as findings may well vary as the list of retractions grows. The characteristics of retracted and unretracted stationery papers may differ, which could explain why some papers have been identified but not others, although all represent fraudulent science. Another limitation was the difficulty of attributing the cause of retraction in some cases, hence a risk of misclassification. In this study, we included formally retracted stationery papers, disregarding suspect papers (i.e. those from the list compiled by EB and others) and this might be a limitation of the present research. . However, the inclusion of papers not formally retracted could lead to a risk of misclassification of these papers if they are ultimately not retracted as paper products. A limitation regarding citation analysis is that citations before and after retraction were not differentiated in this study and this issue should be considered in future research.
The main strength of this study was the use of the Retraction Watch database to identify retracted papers, as this source is the primary database on retractions and should currently be considered the gold standard for aggregate information. on retracted items. The Retraction Watch database has three times the coverage of PubMed and five times the coverage of CrossRef (Retraction Watch, personal communication, 2022). Given this, we consider that the number of missing retractions should be minimal.
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