Protecting the integrity of the scientific record from a new kind of academic misconduct

At the Web of Science Group, we pride ourselves on protecting the integrity of the scholarly record. We are champions of high editorial standards and research practices, and our global team of in-house, publisher-independent editors are experts in their subjects.  So we are ever-vigilant to trends in unethical research practices, which pose a growing threat to legitimate scholarship worldwide.  Recently, we uncovered a new trend which we think is important to bring to light for wider discussion and action.

Our team in Russia received a tip from the local research community to a new form of publication fraud. The tip led to a website,  set up by unscrupulous operators to serve as a virtual marketplace where authors can buy or sell authorship in academic manuscripts accepted for publication. This kind of peer-to-peer sharing, in “broad daylight” is not something we’ve seen before – so we conducted a quick analysis of the site, and its data, before taking swift action to alert our friends and colleagues in the scientific community.

There are no author names, or journal names indicated on the site – the journal name is available to buyers only. Sometimes as many as five authorships in a single article are offered for sale, with prices varying depending on place in the list of authors.

The site claims to guarantee publication in journals that are indexed in Scopus and/or Web of Science. An analysis performed on July 15 reveals that of 344 articles with authorship offered for sale, 32 articles (9%) are allegedly indexed in the Web of Science, and 303 articles (88%) are allegedly indexed in Scopus. We believe that names of journals are revealed to the website customers after they make payment. Articles allegedly for sale are offered in a great variety of scholarly disciplines across natural and social sciences, and the humanities.

There is also available data on the last authorship transactions. Of these, on July 15 there were 183 deals for authorship in journals allegedly indexed in Scopus, and 11 allegedly indexed in the Web of Science. The geography of transactions covers primarily the post-Soviet area (Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine), but there are authorships sold outside of that region, notably to the United Arab Emirates, China and the UK.

The Web of Science editorial team has established 24 selection criteria specifically designed for editorial rigor and best practice. The quality evaluation criteria apply not only for selection of new Web of Science content, but also for monitoring currently indexed journals. While it is assuring that the number of affected articles is relatively small, of course we will be working hard to identify any journals that may have been targeted by this site. If they no longer meet our quality evaluation criteria, their coverage in the Web of Science will be ceased.

In the meantime, we have sent a cease and desist letter to the site owner, alerted the Committee on Publication Ethics, and worked with Retraction Watch to bring more attention to this new development.

It is the vigilance of the local academic community in Russia that helped us to uncover this new and malicious form of publication fraud. We remain firmly committed to working together with academic communities worldwide, and ask everyone to join us in protecting the integrity of academic research and upholding high ethical standards in global scholarly publishing.