An international team of researchers described retracted papers originating from paper mills, including their characteristics, visibility, and impact over time, and the journals in which they were published. The term paper mill refers to for-profit organizations that engage in the large-scale production and sale of papers to researchers, academics, and students who wish to, or have to, publish in peer-reviewed journals. Many paper mill papers included fabricated data.
All paper mill papers retracted from 1 January 2004 to 26 June 2022 were included in the study. Papers bearing an expression of concern were excluded. Descriptive statistics were used to characterize the sample and analyze the trend of retracted paper mill papers over time, and to analyze their impact and visibility by reference to the number of citations received.
In total, 1182 retracted paper mill papers were identified. The publication of the first paper mill paper was in 2004 and the first retraction was in 2016; by 2021, paper mill retractions accounted for 772 (21.8%) of the 3544 total retractions. Overall, retracted paper mill papers were mostly published in journals of the second highest Journal Citation Reports quartile for impact factor (n=529 (44.8%)) and listed four to six authors (n=602 (50.9%)). Of the 1182 papers, almost all listed authors of 1143 (96.8%) paper mill retractions came from Chinese institutions, and 909 (76.9%) listed a hospital as a primary affiliation. 15 journals accounted for 812 (68.7%) of 1182 paper mill retractions, with one journal accounting for 166 (14.0%). Nearly all (n=1083, 93.8%) paper mill retractions had received at least one citation since publication, with a median of 11 (interquartile range 5-22) citations received.
The authors concluded that papers retracted originating from paper mills are increasing in frequency, posing a problem for the research community. Retracted paper mill papers most commonly originated from China and were published in a small number of journals. Nevertheless, detected paper mill papers might be substantially different from those that are not detected. New mechanisms are needed to identify and avoid this relatively new type of misconduct.
China encourages its researchers to publish papers in return for money and career promotions. Furthermore, medical students at Chinese universities are required to produce a scientific paper in order to graduate. Paper mills openly advertise their services on the Internet and maintain a presence on university campuses. The authors of this analysis reference another recent article (authored by two Chinese researchers) that throws more light on the problem:
This study used data from the Retraction Watch website and from published reports on retractions and paper mills to summarize key features of research misconduct in China. Compared with publicized cases of falsified or fabricated data by authors from other countries of the world, the number of Chinese academics exposed for research misconduct has increased dramatically in recent years. Chinese authors do not have to generate fake data or fake peer reviews for themselves because paper mills in China will do the work for them for a price. Major retractions of articles by authors from China were all announced by international publishers. In contrast, there are few reports of retractions announced by China’s domestic publishers. China’s publication requirements for physicians seeking promotions and its leniency toward research misconduct are two major factors promoting the boom of paper mills in China.
As the authors of the new analysis point out: “Fraudulent papers have negative consequences for the scientific community and the general public, engendering distrust in science, false claims of drug or device efficacy, and unjustified academic promotion, among other problems.” On this blog, I have often warned of research originating from China (some might even think that this is becoming an obsession of mine but I do truly think that this is very important). While such fraudulent papers may have a relatively small impact in many areas of healthcare, their influence in the realm of TCM (where the majority of research comes from China) is considerable. In other words, TCM research is infested by fraud to a degree that prevents drawing meaningful conclusions about the value of TCM treatments.
I feel strongly that it is high time for us to do something about this precarious situation. Otherwise, I fear that in the near future no respectable scientist will take TCM seriously.