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Good Practices

Extortion and unethical proposals

Augusto ZambonatoThe Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a scientific publisher forum based in London that is the authority on topics related to research integrity, detected what may be a new kind of scam—fraud perpetrated by companies and institutions that promise to help researchers get scientific articles published or provide consulting services on research ethics. COPE is asking researchers from all over the world to send in reports of possible extortion and coercion practiced by such organizations. “We are not going to investigate individual cases but would like to understand the extent of the problem,” said an announcement published on the forum’s website (

The warning had been given in March 2017 in an item published on the Retraction Watch website by a group of four researchers led by COPE Vice President Chris Graf that listed several denunciations. One of them involved a Chinese scientific editorial company that had suggested to Richard Holt, publisher of the journal Diabetic Medicine, a “collaborative business arrangement” in which he would receive $1,000 per article accepted by his publication. The email from the company argued that it was hard for Chinese physicians to get published in prestigious journals because of the language barrier, and asked Holt to use his influence to facilitate the processing of manuscripts. The publisher responded that the proposal was unethical and that he would report it to COPE.

In another case, Tamara Welschot, director of research integrity at publisher Springer Nature, reported receiving a complaint from a Chinese researcher that he had been the target of threats. He had received an email from an organization “that works in promoting ethics in scientific research,” warning him that evidence of falsification of images had been found in one of his published articles and insinuating that the Chinese Ministry of Education and Academy of Sciences would be interested in hearing about the case. The researcher did not respond, but soon received another message with an explicit threat of blackmail. “You decided to ignore our email. Before investigating all your publications we would like to give you a chance,” the sender wrote, asking for a payment of $2,000 to be sent within two days. An investigation showed that entity’s website was a fake.

Finally, Matt Hodgkinson, coordinator of research integrity at publisher Hindawi, received an email from someone who introduced himself as a broker of papers from Russia and appeared not to have any idea how peer review works in scientific journals. He reported that his company had a goal of publishing between 500 and 1,500 papers in 2017 and offered “pre-selected articles of high quality” that could “be written by leading scientists in Russia.” At a certain point, he asked “What are your conditions and time frames? Do you accept payments via PayPal?,” referring to the money transfer system that circumvents checks and bank transaction slips. Hodgkinson, too, referred this case to COPE.