Dealing with the perils of "paper mills"

How the Bioengineered journal fights fake science

In academic publishing, a "paper mill" is a commercial enterprise that produces fraudulent manuscripts that resemble genuine scholarly articles.

Paper mills are a considerable threat to academia's research integrity. The fake manuscripts they submit to journals can spread misinformation, put unwanted pressure on editors and peer reviewers, and take focus away from legitimate research.

Paper mills pose a huge challenge for publishers and take up an enormous amount of time and resources.

Paper mills target

The Bioengineered journal was a recent target of paper mills. Launched in 2010, Bioengineered is currently in its 14th volume.

It covers bioengineering and biotechnology with a focus on fundamental and advanced sciences.

How Bioengineered combats paper mills

We recently interviewed Dr. Evgeniya Dimova (Bioengineered Executive Editor) and Todd Hummel (Taylor & Francis Global Publishing Director, STM).

Our interview looks at the journal's quick response to the paper mill threat and the extensive safeguards the journal and Taylor & Francis put in place to protect against future paper mill activity.

Image of Dr. Evgeniya Dimova

Dr. Evgeniya Dimova, Bioengineered Executive Editor

Dr. Evgeniya Dimova, Bioengineered Executive Editor

Image of Todd Hummel

Todd Hummel, Taylor & Francis Global Publishing Director, STM

Todd Hummel, Taylor & Francis Global Publishing Director, STM

How were Taylor & Francis and Bioengineered alerted to the paper mill activity?

Todd: In early 2021, the Taylor & Francis team became concerned about submission trends in Bioengineered owing to a spike in submissions, alongside multiple requests for authorship changes to several articles which were under submission or had already been accepted.

Our previous experience on other journals that had been targeted by paper mills signaled the need for a thorough investigation. 

We were operating the journal along with our editorial team in good faith, evaluating each manuscript in a fair manner and not making presumptions about manuscripts being fabricated.

Ultimately, in trying to continue to provide the high-quality service the journal had always provided to legitimate authors, the journal was caught between serving the legitimate authors and correctly rejecting the paper mill authors.

It was determined that all content, at all stages, would need to be thoroughly assessed to ensure we could stand behind the publications.

It was a challenging job to evaluate hundreds of individual papers which are designed to look legitimate, and we wanted to ensure rigorous checks were complete before beginning the retraction process. Unfortunately, once a paper mill is successful in publishing a paper, the paper mill will persistently target the journal with submissions on similar topics, and the sheer volume of content is overwhelming for a small editorial team to handle.

Once aware of being a target of paper mills, what actions did Taylor & Francis and Bioengineered take to combat this activity?

Todd: The journal has been through several stages in responding to the papermill issue. Taylor & Francis and Bioengineered have responded swiftly and made huge investments in strengthening processes and checks, adding resources and staff to the investigation and prevention efforts as quickly as possible.

In the first stage, enhanced technical checks at submission were introduced and the journal policies were modified to request that authors submit the raw data associated with submitted research. This allowed Taylor & Francis to flag any potential issues to the editorial team to help them identify and, if appropriate, desk reject problematic submissions.

Additionally, the Reviewer Selection Team, responsible for selecting and inviting appropriate and vetted reviewers on behalf of the Editors, carried out an assessment before starting to invite reviewers. We also implemented an end-to-end process for dealing with authorship list change requests, so that any concerning signals could be spotted quickly. If issues were found, these were again flagged to the editorial team, thus providing an additional opportunity to desk reject problematic submissions. 

Additionally, the Taylor & Francis Publishing, Ethics, and Integrity Team held training for the deputy editors on how to spot fraudulent submissions once the papermill situation came to light. And Taylor & Francis and the Executive Editor have been in ongoing communication.

The most recent efforts have been focused around establishing the Desk Assessment Team, a trained Taylor & Francis team that reviews all submitted manuscripts for adherence to ethical and journal policies, conducting several integrity checks on the content of each manuscript before it progresses to peer review. This service is extremely rigorous, but Taylor & Francis is committed and has added the service on other journals where the subject matter is deemed high-risk and susceptible to paper mill activity.

The journal also instituted a check where a member of the Taylor & Francis Publishing Ethics and Integrity Team checked each accepted manuscript before it progressed to production.

Has Bioengineered now overcome the paper mill activity?

Todd: Yes. The historical issues are under control and our experience on Bioengineered means we would be able to respond faster if a similar spike in submission numbers were seen.

We now have robust checks in place, supported by dedicated experts, to handle any malicious submissions, and the resources and support to address any concerns.

However, we are mindful that due to the nature of paper mills, they evolve, and we will continue to review and adapt our workflows to counter new threats.

Could you share the changes that have been made to Bioengineered's editorial team?

Evgeniya: Bioengineered’s editorial staff now consists of an Executive Editor, three decision-making Deputy Editors, 20 Associate Editors, and an extensive Editorial Board.

My role, the Executive Editor, is a hybrid role, combining subject expertise with project management to best fit the needs of the journal as it completes these complicated ethical integrity reviews and journal updates, and as we look ahead to new, legitimate submissions to the journal. 

I liaise with the Taylor & Francis Publishing, Ethics and Integrity Team and the journal’s editorial team to ensure all the ethics checks and procedures are working effectively and efficiently. All papers are subject to these rigorous checks before they are passed to our Deputy Editors or Associate Editors. This means that any papers handled by our academic team are backed by our confidence in the supporting data and originality of the work. Our experts are then well placed to make use of the journal’s academic community to ensure that these articles become the best version possible. 

I have a wealth of experience as an editor and have served on a similar journal for over 10 years, including assisting in handling peer review for a high-quality biotechnology journal. Through this previous role, I worked closely with Taylor & Francis on best practices in spotting and dealing with ethical concerns, as well as operating in a sensitive and respectful manner with submitting authors. 

Our Deputy and Associate Editors are leading experts in their fields, lending their own academic networks and expertise to the review process, ensuring that the final papers we publish are of high quality, and strengthened by going through the journal review process. 

Todd: Adding the Executive Editor role has allowed for expedited conversations between our ethics and integrity team and journal authors and editors.

This has ensured that legitimate authors are not caught up inappropriately in our extensive investigations, but are quickly provided with the excellent peer review process we undertake on all of Taylor & Francis’s academic journals. 

What's Bioengineered's peer review process? 

Evgeniya: Ensuring high editorial standards remain at the forefront of Bioengineered.

Articles published in Bioengineered undergo comprehensive and robust single-blind peer review. Articles submitted to the journal are assessed by our Desk Assessment Team, who conduct rigorous checks for a variety of things, including full presentation of accurate data, images that are free from image manipulation, and originality through a Crossref similarity detection check. 

Suitable manuscripts are then evaluated by our Deputy and Associate Editors, before being sent out to two external experts for review. Following peer review and together with the Deputy Editor’s opinion, a decision will then be sent to the authors. 

Any revised paper will then be subject to the same evaluation by our Deputy and Associate Editor(s), who will evaluate whether the paper requires additional review, or whether it resolves the needs of the previous reviewer.

Once the Deputy Editor is happy with the final version of the paper, it will proceed to our production team for publication. 

What wider steps is Taylor & Francis taking to combat paper mills? 

Todd: Publishers play an important role in ensuring the legitimacy and integrity of what is published and disseminated across the world. Taylor & Francis have heavily invested in systems, safeguards, and expertise to ensure due process has been applied to the scholarly content we publish. The paper mill problem doesn’t just concern publishers but the scholarly record as a whole, and therefore collaboration is key to addressing this issue.

Taylor & Francis regularly participates in cross-publisher working groups and task forces with COPE and STM on developing industry-wide guidance, policies, and tools. We are actively involved with the STM Integrity Hub, which was launched in early 2022, and contribute to the paper mills working group, image manipulation working group, and the duplicate submission working group.

As part of this project, Taylor & Francis, alongside other publishers, makes important contributions to research integrity through the editorial process, the peer review process, and building and maintaining a permanent record of scholarly information. Together, the STM integrity hub is working on projects and development of software to address the problem of paper mills.

We are also committed to educating about paper mill activity and raising awareness both internally and externally to combat this issue. We do this by providing training, having educational content on our websites, speaking at external events, doing media interviews, running author workshops, and partnering with industry groups such as COPE and STM.

Why should researchers publish with Bioengineered?

Evgeniya: We’re confident that our efforts tackling the paper mill issue on Bioengineered are restoring trust in the journal. The initial manuscript checks carried out by Desk Assessment are completed quickly, and our peer review turnaround times remain swift. New submissions can expect a timely response: on average it takes 17 days from submission to first decision, 39 days from submission to first post-review decision, and 40 days from acceptance to online publication. However, we prioritize the highest ethical standards on Bioengineered, and as an editorial team we will continue to prioritize careful handling and high-quality standards over fast turnaround times when necessary. 

Todd: We are a leading publisher, with some of the most prestigious journals in the world.

Our author survey shows an overall satisfaction level of 85% over the past 12 months across all stages of the publication process. Additionally, Taylor & Francis’ program of full open-access journals, which includes Bioengineered, enables researchers to make their research freely and permanently available so anyone, anywhere can read and build upon their work. Articles receive global marketing and publicity, ensuring research is discovered by key audiences across the globe. This leads to open-access articles having increased visibility and discoverability with on average eight times more readers than for traditionally published articles, which, in turn, can lead to more citations.

Open-access articles reach beyond academia, with research potentially informing and developing public policy and teaching practices, being read by the public, and being picked up by the media.

What's next for Bioengineered?

Evgeniya: Our current focus is to ensure the continuation of high-quality processes and publications, bringing the journal into its next stage of success.

The journal welcomes submissions from the global community to be part of this, especially for those with a focus on the techno-socio-economic use of biotechnology for food, pharmaceutical and industrial applications, and its use in bioprocesses, bioproducts, conversion technologies, sustainable biological recycling and the recovery of environmental resources.

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