Washington Update

House Science Committee Investigates Scientific Publishing

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, July 28, 2022
House Science Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Bill Foster (D-IL) began a recent hearing on paper mills and research misconduct by making the point that he had written a new paper in his spare time showing the results of experiments on a groundbreaking scientific topic. Immediately, he said his was a rip off of the real seminal paper, “Neutron Production and Absorption in Uranium,” which was published in Physical Review in 1939 and authored by Enrico Fermi. Using the real paper, he ran it through a free online text generator that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to disguise plagiarism taking 15 seconds. Through this tool he demonstrated that detecting a fake publication is becoming harder with fake content generators tuned up to generate low plagiarism scores. He compared it to the AI technique that is used to generate deep fake images and videos.

Three witnesses testified at the oversight hearing. One was Jennifer Byrne, PhD, Director of Biobanking, New South Wales Health Pathology and Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Sydney. Paper mills, which are commercialized organizations that provide services to authors of scientific and scholarly publications, including fabricated data and manuscripts, are a significant threat to science in terms of both its practice and its reputation. The papers from the mills are designed for career or commercial gain. She testified that she has been studying systematic research fraud for about the past seven years, and there is a need for incentives for publishers to correct problematic research or for other scientists to report it.

Chris Graf, Research Integrity Director at Springer Nature, said that the research publishing sector is facing one of its current challenges, namely the challenge of paper mills and research misconduct. Publishers can and are doing more to stop papers generated by paper mills. This also involves a broad coalition of those who are able to make change happen such as the institutions and funders. A system-approach to the paper mill problem is needed with state-of-the-art technology tools playing an important role by flagging possible concerns before publication to support the editorial decision-making process. Therefore, publishers can prevent fake material from entering the scholarly record using resources such as the STM Association Integrity Hub. Publishers and the scholarly communication community use the hub as a new unified approach to share knowledge, innovations, and data with a single mission: to safeguard the integrity of science.

Brandon Stell, PhD, a neuroscientist with the French National Centre for Scientific Research and President/Co-Founder of PubPeer Foundation, said that paper mills are producing articles for the sole purpose of artificially inflating publication and citation metrics and hoping nobody ever reads them to see that they are fake. The PubPeer Foundation encourages the federal government, through its funding of science, to play a role in combating fakes. Funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation can put into place procedures to exploit information available through community curation sites, including PubPeer. In fact, he stated that numerous regular PubPeer users are even more expert than journal and institution staff when it comes to the forensic examination of the literature. He also recommended that scientists that make exceptional contributions to public evaluation should be rewarded and that incentives are shifted to place a higher importance on the content of articles.