Sage, a leading academic publisher, has announced the retraction of sixty papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control. Each paper was written or reviewed by someone implicated in a scheme of “sock puppet” reviewers. That is, a paper submitted for publication would be evaluated by a reviewer who used a false identity. In at least one case, an author reportedly reviewed his own paper while posing as somebody else.
The founding editor-in-chief of the journal, Ali Hassan Nayfeh, has resigned. However, Professor Nayfeh, who is eighty years old, had already achieved emeritus status at Virginia Tech in 2010, so his retirement from the journal was expected soon anyway. In its statement, Sage credits the highly reputable Nayfeh with an active role in discovering and cleaning up the mess.
Although Sage has not said much about the specific techniques used by the sock-puppeteers, the opportunity for shenanigans involving “assumed and fabricated identities” is easily understood. Sage, like other publishers, uses an automated system for managing reviews of submitted papers. By their nature, such systems must be open to the public so that people can submit their work. It is simple for a single person to establish multiple accounts on the automated system, each with a different contact email address, without much risk of detection. Once “in the system,” an account holder becomes eligible to perform reviews, under whatever name he used to open the account.
Commenting on the situation in the Washington Post, Fred Barbash asked, “Doesn’t anyone check on these things by, say, picking up the phone and calling the reviewer?” Speaking from my own experience as a review manager, I verify the bona fides of prospective reviewers by visiting their web sites, or rely on a personal referral from someone I’ve vetted. Communication is almost always by email, using an address which I have reason to think really belongs to the person I think it does. Pick up the phone? No, not as part of any routine.
Journal of Vibration and Control is a fast-growing publication. JVC offered about 650 pages a year when it began in 1995 and about 1500 pages in 2013. That’s roughly 4.5% growth per year, a brisk pace. It is possible that this growth rate made it easier for a busy review manager to assume that any account holder in the automated system was a real researcher and different from anybody holding a different account in the system.
In addition to the introduction of unspecified “new measures to reinforce the peer review process,” Sage’s statement promised new leadership and increased personnel to handle review management work load:
Three senior editors and an additional 27 associate editors with expertise and prestige in the field have been appointed to assist with the day-to-day running of the JVC peer review process. Following Professor Nayfeh’s retirement announcement, the external senior editorial team will be responsible for independent editorial control for JVC.