Hackers scam research journal’s peer-review process, get 19 papers published

A ‘rogue editor network’ infiltrated a research journal’s peer-review system in an attempt to publish sub-standard papers in an attempt to subvert the scietific research standards.

The hijackers created fake e-mail accounts and web domains to impersonate respected academics, and managed to accept 19 papers for publication at The Journal of Nanoparticle Research. However, the suspicious activity was flagged by journal editors and by the research-integrity department of the publisher (Springer Nature). But the modus operandi has left the scientific community shocked.

The Journal of Nanoparticle Research said out of the 19 articles which were accepted, some of them were published online, due to the attack by ‘an organised rogue editor network’.

Modus operandi

Fraudsters generated fake email addresses that mimicked those of real universities and respected academics to approach the journal, which is published by Springer Nature. They suggested an idea for a themed issue on ‘the role of nanotechnology and internet of things in healthcare’. “They contacted us, not just with a fake email address, but also fake domains that were very similar to one university in Germany and one in the UK,” revealed Humboldt University chemist Nicola Pinna, who serves as the journal’s executive editor.

Pinna said the proposals were “sound and quite detailed” and even included suggestions for researchers working in appropriate fields, who might wish to submit papers. When the themed issue was commissioned, they were invited to handle papers and assign referees, which enabled 19 papers to be published, that would otherwise have been rejected by the journal for failing to meet standards.

When the research integrity group from Springer flagged about the standards of the special issue, the journal’s editorial team began investigating the scam, only to find that the fake email accounts had expired. “There was no way we could even try to contact them back via these domain names – they don’t exist anymore,” said Pinna.

Sophisticated network

Apologising to the scientific community, the journal said it has put in place new measures to avoid falling victim to such scams in future, and hoped that its experience may help other publishers to stop similar attempts by fraudulent attackers of the research system.

“Indeed, we editors are sadly accustomed to dealing with plagiarism, manipulated data, fake reviewers, and duplicate publications. However, our journal has been attacked in a new way by a sophisticated and organized network,” Pinna said.

The Journal of Nanoparticle Research, founded in 1999 by Mihail (Mike) Roco. In September 2019, they received 80 manuscripts for a special issue on the “Role of Nanotechnology and Internet of Things in Healthcare.” When 19 of them were already published with low standards, they started an internal investigation and found that the supposed eminent academics who proposed the special issue had nothing to do with it.

Fake email IDs

The organized group used these their names and email addresses to hack and manipulate the peer review process. In August 2019, they bought some very similar domain names (presently expired) to the ones of the supposed university addresses. The only differences were “univ” instead of “uni” in one e-mail suffix and “-ac.uk” instead of “.ac.uk” in another.

“Have we been careless? Probably, but who would have thought scientists would go to that extent, i.e., to organize a whole rogue network and propose a sound and interesting special issue in a scientific journal, just to get few articles published?” said the publishers.

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