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Paper mills: United to act

A year ago, COPE and STM (the trade association for the worldwide academic publishing industry) undertook a study with Maverick Publishing Services, using data from publishers and interviews with stakeholders, to understand the scale of the problem of paper mills, and to consider what actions should be taken. A clear conclusion from the research was that this is a problem that can only be solved through the collective and joint efforts of publishers, funders, research institutes and other stakeholders. Recommendations for action centred around education and engagement, investment in tools and systems, adjustment of researcher incentives, implementation of protocols which could impede paper mills from succeeding, and improvement in the retraction process.

Since then there has been significant activity to take these recommendations forward.

Collective action​​​​

Recognising the need for collective action,  in May 2023, COPE and STM brought together 40 participants from all over the world, representing Research bodies, Publishers, Researchers/Sleuths, Universities and other stakeholders to the United2Act Summit.  The aim of the Summit was to arrive at a shared actionable multi-stakeholder plan to address the problem of paper mills. This action plan is being finalised and progress will be reported on regularly.

Investment in tools and technology

STM Solutions, the standards and technology arm of STM, is developing the Integrity Hub on behalf of STM members. Current activities include creating a Paper Mill Checker Tool and a Duplicate Submission Detection Tool. The first tool combines several signals indicative of paper mills and can screen submitted manuscripts. A MVP (minimal viable product) was launched in June and is currently being tested by several publishers. The Duplicate Submission Detection Tool screens submissions over different publishers and submission systems checking for duplications, fully respecting policies around privacy and confidentiality. A pilot, integrating several publishers and journals over different submission systems, is planned to start in the summer. 

Education and engagement

During this year, COPE has issued two relevant pieces of guidance in dealing with paper mills. The first 'Addressing concerns about systematic manipulation of the publication process' provides practical steps for editors and publishers dealing with paper mills, empowering decision-making at batch level and supporting timely investigations. The second 'Best practices for guest edited collections' discusses the ethical considerations of managing special issues while ensuring good and ethical publishing practices to avoid the vulnerability of these collections to organised fraud. 

The COPE Forum this month had as its topic the discussion document on 'Guest edited collections'. The previous Forum discussed Artificial Intelligence and Fake Papers. Council members Dr Sarah Elaine Eaton and Dr Marie Soulière introduced the topic, and the recording is available to watch again, with a summary of the discussion. During the Forum various questions were raised surrounding the use of AI for fake paper creation and the production of papers based on valid research. The discussion summary includes aspects of authorship, bias, originality, and using AI tools to counteract AI fraud.  

Additionally, the Publication Integrity Week in October of this year (see elsewhere in this newsletter), will devote significant time to discussion the issues around, and ways of dealing with, research misconduct.

Researcher incentives

There are many initiatives looking at reforming researcher assessment and incentives. As a result of the discussions around the way that assessment and incentives can drive researchers towards paper mills, COPE has recently become a signatory of The Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA), and will be investigating other relevant collaborations on this topic.

There is much more activity planned, both by STM and by COPE and the members of the United2Act Summit. We will report back regularly on progress.

Deborah Kahn, COPE Trustee