Paper mills and Review mills

Paper mills and Review mills

The original meaning of Paper mill, which refers to the paper industry, has taken on a completely different meaning in scientific publishing, indicating a predatory practice which is unfortunately increasingly widespread and carried out illegally by profit-making organisations.
Paper mills consist of the systematic production of fake manuscripts, often plagiarized or written with automatic systems, which are sold to researchers who propose them for publication in scientific journals passing them off as their own, in order to quickly achieve the minimum requirements for career advancement.

Another activity they manage is the buying and selling of authorship whereby the article may be a ‘real’ article, but the author string is inflated through a market on the different positions in the string.

Some clues to recognise fraudulent manuscripts are the presence of similar features in the editorial layout and the re-use of the same graphics, images or tables. Elisabeth Bik is a researcher specialised in detecting duplicate images in journals; she publishes the results of her analyses daily on forums and social media, and is credited with having brought a huge problem involving editorial processes into the spotlight.
The result is that the number of retractions by scientific committees has increased and some publishers have been induced to change their policies, for instance by discontinuing disciplines more easily subject to the phenomenon of paper mills, or have started asking authors for the raw data that led to the research results. Some journals also now have very stringent policies with respect to authorship whereby the string of authors once the article has been submitted can no longer be changed.

Another type of fraud in science concerns Review mills, which consist of the large-scale production of scientific reviews; they are recognisable because they report similar arguments regardless of the subject matter of the reviewed texts, and are characterised by the insistent request to add bibliographical references of texts written by the same reviewer, with the aim of manipulating the increase in citations (this alone is not sufficient practice to classify a review as fraudulent). Oviedo Garcia, professor of business management and marketing at the University of Seville, regularly examines the open peer reviews published by MDPI and reports the results of these analyses on a daily basis. However, this is not only a feature of MDPI.

The industry of paper mills and review mills is predominantly located in South Asia, China, Russia and Iran.

The phenomenon is also set to grow due to the spread of generative artificial intelligence tools, which make the large-scale production of fraudulent papers and reviews much easier. On the other hand, artificial intelligence could become a good ally in the fight against these malpractices, if used as a tool to identify suspicious material, although human intervention remains essential to make a reasoned judgement on what the technology has reported.

Academic fraud is a serious problem that undermines the integrity of research and must therefore be opposed with all available means, starting with educating young researchers on research ethics, collaboration between publishers so that an article intercepted and rejected by one publisher cannot be accepted by another, and finally, using technology itself.

COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) is preparing guidelines and creating a task force of editors dedicated to this phenomenon.