Who do we think you are?

Ethics at Hindawi - Hindawi blog

“Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else.”

Alice in Wonderland

When I was first managing peer review, I dreamt of an easy way to tell apart researchers with similar names. Western names were bad enough – witness the frustrations of two Andrew M. Harrisons – but the common lack of middle initials and a smaller pool of first and last names in Japan and China has been a constant source of angst: there are an estimated 300,000 Wei Zhangs in the world! The email address is the main identifier in modern publishing, but researchers may have several across their career. I was delighted when ORCID, the Open Researcher and Contributor ID, finally launched in 2012, as was Hindawi, and to help adoption Hindawi joined several publishers this year in requiring ORCID for corresponding authors. I’ve got one, how about you?

However, ORCID is no panacea for identity troubles. Not every researcher is signed up and not every profile is filled in, let alone up-to-date, but crucially ORCID works on something that is becoming scarce in publishing: trust. Researchers are asked to identify themselves and their work, without validation. This trust is not unique to ORCID – and the unscrupulous have exploited it.

Reports of identity theft in peer review came to light in 2011, just yesterday in publishing terms. What began as a trickle of fake reviewers (noteworthy enough to consult the Committee on Publication Ethics about in 2012) became a flood by 2014, prompting press coverage, dozens of retractions, a COPE statement, and the decision by several publishers to stop using author-suggested reviewers. Some journals allow only reviewers with institutional emails, but email accounts from major global universities are for sale and can be spoofed or faked on some university networks. Hindawi already did not use author-suggested reviewers, but unfortunately we were still vulnerable: first we saw guest editors fake reviews, possibly to cut corners, and then we found a guest editor themselves was a pretender.

The faking extends to authors. A pet cat became a co-author, perhaps harmlessly, but one researcher found his own results, previously presented at conferences, had been stolen and published by authors with false names. More commonly, papers mills in China, Iran and elsewhere fabricate manuscripts to order, and submit on behalf of researchers under pressure to publish but who lack the time, inclination or wherewithal to do so. Other authors fake emails for a co-author they have fallen out with or “gifted” with authorship without their permission. Some even use pseudonyms, to maintain anonymity or even evade scrutiny.

Following our own run-ins with faking, in 2014 Hindawi began screening author, reviewer and editor identities: we verify email addresses, check for inconsistencies, compare meta-data of the different people associated with a submission, and check peer review reports at acceptance for signs of collusion. We hope ORCID for the honest, and checks for those who are not will be enough – so we don’t need to think about asking for a driving license or passport!

The text of this blog post is by Hindawi and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Highlighter image copyright Wei Huang/Shutterstock.