The pressure to publish or perish has led some desperate researchers to pay for fake papers to flesh out their CVs.
Worse still, some of these bogus articles are published in official scientific journals.
A computer program designed to detect these made-up studies suggests that far too many of them escape peer review.
The study has been published as a pre-print article and is still awaiting peer review itself, but if the results are confirmed, this is of great concern.
Using artificial intelligence, researchers have trained a computer to look for several red flags commonly seen in bogus articles submitted to scientific journals.
When the tool was able to detect red flags with 90% accuracy, it was used to scan around 5,000 neuroscience and medical papers published in 2020.
The tool scored 28% as probably invented or plagiarized.
If this applies to all of the 1.3 million biomedical papers published in 2020, over 300,000 would have been flagged.
Not all of these flags are really wrong, but they do help identify the most suspicious studies that should be investigated further by reviewers.
For every 100 red-flagged items the new tool identified, about 63 were actually fakes and 37 were genuine.
Neuropsychologist Bernhard Sabel of the Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg in Germany is one of the study’s authors and the editor of a neurology journal.
He, like many others, has had to deal with a recent increase in false papers. But even Sabel was shocked by his tool’s initial numbers.
“It’s too hard to believe,” he said Science.
Sabel and his colleagues blame “paper mills” for the fraudulent activity. Paper mills advertise themselves as “academic support” services, but in reality, they use AI to scale and sell bogus publications to researchers.
Prices for fake papers can range from $1,000 to $25,000.
The quality of these studies is often poor but just good enough to pass peer review, even in recognized journals.
Publishers are aware that this is a serious issue that is damaging their reputation. Scientists have even tricked publications into accepting ridiculously fake papers to draw attention to the problem.
Sometimes paper mills will go so far as to pay publishers to accept their bogus studies. In fact, an unsolicited email of this nature to a newspaper editor prompted the new study.
“Because the problem is still perceived to be minor (approximately 1 in 10,000 publications), publishers and learned societies are just beginning to adjust editorial, peer review, and publication procedures,” the researchers write.
“Yet the true extent of the false publication remains unknown, despite the fact that the number of reports on paper mills is increasing.”
Between 2010 and 2020, the new tool found a 12 percentage point increase in the rate of potential fake articles published by some journals.
The nation with the highest number of potential counterfeits was China, contributing just over half of the red flags. Russia, Turkey, Egypt and India were also significant contributors.
“False scientific publication is perhaps the biggest scientific scam of all time, wasting financial resources, slowing medical progress and possibly putting lives at risk,” say the researchers.
And the rise of generative AI such as ChatGPT only makes the scam more menacing.
To counter this emerging technology and maintain the reputation of science itself, the researchers say a more rigorous review system is urgently needed.
The preprint was published in medRxiv.