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Rigged peer-review process leads to retraction of 20 published articles

Manipulation in selection of reviewers compromised the analysis of agricultural papers at PLOS One

On August 3, the scientific journal PLOS ONE announced that it was simultaneously retracting 20 articles due to ethical questions relating to their peer-review processes. The journal determined that through collusion between editors and reviewers, agricultural studies submitted for publication were directed to reviewers who failed to disclose conflicts of interest and ties with authors. More than a hundred papers are under investigation and the number of retractions is likely to grow in the coming months. “We concluded that peer review was compromised and that there were editorial policy compliance issues, necessitating retraction,” said molecular biologist Renee Hoch, head of publication ethics at publishers PLOS, in a post on the flagship journal’s blog.

The investigation into the case began in March, when an editor at the journal noticed an anomaly in a list of agriculture manuscripts: in a 10-month period, one author had submitted more than 40 papers for publication, a suspiciously high number in such a short time. Closer scrutiny uncovered a series of strange coincidences. The author, whose identity was not revealed, always requested that his submissions be evaluated by the same academic editor. At PLOS journals, this function is performed by external consultants selected by the editorial board. Although they are not part of the journal’s staff, academic editors make decisions about papers and organize the peer-review process, inviting researchers with in-depth knowledge of the topic in question to verify the robustness and quality of the text.

After analyzing the other authors of the papers involved and the reviewers chosen to evaluate them, the journal found that many names came up repeatedly, as well as concrete evidence of misconduct: in some cases, reviewers and editors had collaborated with authors or were linked to the same institutions, but did not declare these conflicts of interest. It was concluded that this rigged system affected the peer review of 300 papers submitted since 2020, 100 of which had already been published. Most of them were published in PLOS ONE since 2020. How the scheme worked is unclear, but Hoch believes the network may have provided services to help authors publish articles. The high number of papers submitted by some scientists may also be an indication, according to her, that they are not the real authors.

A group of 41 authors and editors were responsible for 10 or more of the submissions. Nearly half of the researchers were from Pakistan, while others were linked to institutions in China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India. A particular academic editor was requested to manage a quarter of all the submissions and ended up overseeing the peer review of over 30 papers.

The mass retraction has caused controversy because no problems have yet been identified with the content or quality of the articles—the ethical violations relate solely to the peer-review process. The retraction notices for the 20 PLOS ONE papers state that they are part of “a series of submissions for which we have concerns about authorship, competing interests, and peer review.” The authors protested, as to be expected. “I strongly disagree with the retraction. I don’t know the reason. All data and review processes are conducted with strict security procedures without any violations,” Yunzhou Li of the School of Agriculture at Guizhou University in China, author of four retracted papers, told Retraction Watch. The articles described fungi that attack loquats, ways to improve rice quality under water stress, the effects of zinc and silicon on wheat, and the impact of insecticides and plant extracts in combating the insect that spreads the yellow mosaic virus in bean plants.

Subhan Danish, from the Department of Soil Sciences at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Pakistan, claims he had no say in the choice of reviewers for the two retracted papers he authored: one on the antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of a plant and the other on the use of a spectrography technique to study two plant species. “The decision was made by the editor. We are being punished for a crime we did not commit.” Muhammad Hamzah Saleem, affiliated with Huazhong Agricultural University in China and author of two of the retracted articles, said he recommended two academic editors to review his papers, but his suggestions were ignored. He said he had no relationship with Saqib Bashir of Ghazi University, Pakistan, the academic editor responsible for reviewing his manuscripts. “Bashir is not our friend,” he says.

Fraud in peer-review processes is not new, but examples are most often found in titles that do not strictly implement or monitor the procedure. This is not the case for journals in the PLOS collection, whose acronym stands for the nonprofit organization Public Library of Science. Launched as an online journal in 2006, PLOS ONE is renowned for its high-level reviewers and for being a pioneer in disseminating high-quality scientific content exclusively online. It became one of the first mega-journals, a term used to describe periodicals that publish high volumes of work online via open access. As well as PLOS ONE, the group also includes titles such as PLOS Biology, PLOS Computational Biology, PLOS Genetics, and PLOS Pathogens.

The collusion was discovered after PLOS created a new team, led by Hoch, that is dedicated to investigating ethical issues. The team was formed in 2018 to investigate a surge of allegations of image manipulation in papers published between 2014 and 2016. Last year, it was expanded to speed up its investigative processes and tackle the large number of pending cases—tasks that previously relied on one person are now carried out by a team of five senior editors. PLOS has announced that it will make changes to its submission and prepublication processes, including extra screening for conflicts of interest between authors and academic editors. And it promises to thoroughly investigate how the scheme was set up. “We’re very concerned that our editorial board, whom the journal has such a strong reliance on, seems to have been involved in this case for peer-review manipulation,” Hoch told Retraction Watch. “We take that vulnerability very, very seriously. It has really important implications for the journal.”