The journal publisher Frontiers has retracted four papers from NIIST and CTCRI, which are Thiruvananthapuram-based CSIR and ICAR labs respectively, once it found evidence of fake peer reviews. Routine check on a manuscript submitted by the researchers from these labs led to the discovery of faking the peer-review process. While the manuscript was rejected, it also led to further scrutiny of all papers published by them and retraction of four papers.
On November 17, four papers published by researchers from Thiruvananthapuram-based national labs were retracted by journal publisher Frontiers owing to fake peer reviews. Three papers are from CSIR-National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST) and the fourth is from ICAR-Central Tuber Research Institute (CTCRI). The papers were published between August 2015 and October 2017 in three journals — Frontiers in Microbiology (here and here), Frontiers in Pharmacology and Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology.
What is fake peer review
Review of manuscripts by researchers working in the same area of specialisation allows for critical evaluation of the manuscript prior to acceptance and publication in journals. Some journal publishers ask authors to suggest reviewers for their papers. There have been numerous instances where the suggested reviewers may be real persons but the e-mail addresses are fakes. The fake e-mail addresses are created by the authors themselves so the manuscripts sent out for peer reviewing by the journals reach the authors. They now wear the hat of reviewers and invariably give their own paper a glowing review. As a result, the paper gets published even if the quality of work is highly questionable.
The authors of the four papers had shared personal or non-institutional email addresses of the supposed peer reviewers to manipulate the peer-reviewing system.
Nishanth Kumar, who was a post-doc at NIIST, is the only author common to all four papers; he is the first author of three papers and a corresponding author of two papers. Dr. B.S. Dileep Kumar, who heads the Agroprocessing and Natural Products Division at NIIST, is a corresponding author of three papers.
According to Retraction Watch, routine check on another manuscript submitted by Nishanth Kumar and other authors led to the discovery of faked e-mails. When contacted by the journal, the actual reviewers were “unaware of the manuscript review, and that their names had been suggested by the authors with false e-mail addresses”. The manuscript was rejected and further scrutiny led to the discovery of fake emails supplied for the four papers that have now been retracted.
“The publisher has discovered that the author(s) created and provided false information for the peer-review process. As the scientific integrity of the article cannot be guaranteed, and adhering to the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the publisher therefore retracts the article,” reads the retraction notice on all the four papers.
“Nishanth Kumar had done his doctorate from ICAR-Central Tuber Research Institute (CTCRI), Thiruvananthapuram and joined NIIST as a post-doc. He was not a permanent scientist at NIIST. He was doing reasonably good work and the papers are of reasonable quality. I don’t know why he did this. Now, we have not been able to trace him,” says Dr. A. Ajayaghosh, Director of NIIST.
“Nishanth was a Science & Engineering Research Board (SERB) fellow and working as a temporary employee but equivalent to a scientist. He was working independently. He had contacts with many researchers and he suggested the names of reviewers,” says Dr. Dileep Kumar of NIIST who was periodically monitoring the group’s work. “I made a mistake by not suggesting the names of reviewers. But till this happened, we never doubted him.”
More than fake peer reviews
“In the paper published in May this year, Nishanth has given CTCRI as his affiliation though he is not associated with the institute. The co-author of that paper Dr. C. Mohandas of CTCRI has retired nearly four years ago. One of the reviewers for a paper is his PhD co-guide who retired from CTCRI nearly five years ago,” says Dr. Dileep Kumar.
Considering the level of deception and cheating that the researcher had engaged in, there is good reason for all his published papers to be scrutinised for unethical practices.
“I have been working as a CSIR scientist for the last 26 years and have only four more years to retire. This has come as a black mark at the fag end of my career. All the work carried out by eight students for two years has been wasted,” says Dr. Dileep Kumar. “There is no plagiarism and all the data are correct. The editors did not find any problems with our work. It was retracted only because of the fake peer reviews.”
China cracks down on fake peer reviews
In April this year, Springer Nature retracted 107 papers of Chinese authors from the journal Tumor Biology once it discovered that the papers were accepted based on fake peer review.
On June 14, 2017, a coalition of agencies led by the science ministry in China announced that it would suspend the grants of researchers involved in such fraud. “Funding agencies promised to increase policing the scientific community to prevent similar deceptions,” Nature noted.