Meet a detective whose work has resulted in more than 850 retractions – Retraction Watch
Nick Wise has always been “slightly interested” in research integrity and fraud just because he worked in academia.
Then, last July, he learned about the work of Guillaume Cabanac, Cyril Labbé and Alexander Magazinov identifying “tortured phrases” in published articles from image detective Elisabeth Bik on Twitter.
Such expressions – like “breast danger,” meaning “breast cancer” – are computer-generated using translation or paraphrasing software, possibly by authors trying to complete their manuscripts or avoid detection of plagiarism.
Cabanac, Labbé and Magazinov had started out with tormented phrases in the field of computer science, so Wise decided to try his hand at finding them in his own field, fluid dynamics.
He got a thesaurus widget, started plugging in terms like “heat transfer” and googled the results – “thermal motion”, “heat exchange”, etc.
“A lot of papers have come up,” said Wise, 30, who recently completed his PhD in architectural fluid dynamics at the University of Cambridge in the UK and will soon start as a postdoc there.
It was the beginning of a detective hobby that has already led to more than 850 retractions.
Around the time Wise was beginning to play with tormented phrases, he discovered PubPeer and began publishing his findings under his initials and surname, NH Wise. He checked the site every day to see if anything new or strange had been posted, and began seeing more and more issues with posts that went beyond tormented phrases.
“Once you look at a lot of bad newspapers, when they cut corners and get one thing wrong, they often get something else wrong, too,” he said.
Wise also submitted the new distressed sentences he found to the Problematic Paper Screener — so many that Cabanac got in touch with him and added him to a private Slack group to discuss the integrity of the research.
Through the Slack group, Wise first saw authorship ads when another detective shared a link to a Facebook page.
“I clicked through and started scrolling, and then you’re like, ‘Oh god,'” Wise said.
“There’s this whole economy, an ecosystem of Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels selling article authorship, selling quotes, selling book chapters, selling patent authorship.”
He started scrolling through the Facebook pages and searching Google to find the authored items for sale.
Sometimes it was easy if the ad contained the full title of the paper, e.g. B. “Psychometric Validation of the Indonesian Version of the Fear of COVID-19 Scale: Personality Traits Predict Fear of COVID-19,” Wise Advertisement found on Facebook and published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.
He posted the ad on PubPeer, where one of the authors replied, “We have no idea who posted the fake Facebook ad for this article, but it wasn’t one of the co-authors.” (The discussion went downhill from there. )
If the ad only had keywords in the title, it was much more difficult, if not impossible.
Still, Wise has posted insights into hundreds of articles on PubPeer, pointed out irrelevant references, tracked down the source code of a plagiarized article with lots of tormented phrases, and identified authorship oddities such as: B. an article listing the French city of Clermont Ferrand as its corresponding author.
Cabanac and Labbe previously told us that Wise “is an innovator: He comes up with clever ways to detect fraud.” In other words: “He rocks!”
“I like to browse the internet and try to google things,” Wise tells us.
Also, work is “an excellent pastime,” Wise said. “Any valid reason not to write your thesis.”
As well as finding tormented phrases or advertisements for the authorship of individual articles and publishing them on PubPeer, Wise has also begun investigating special issues and conference proceedings of journals ripe for paper mill activity, as peer review is often outsourced.
The bulk of the more than 850 retractions that Wise’s work has resulted in came from IOP Publishing’s proceedings in two groupings: 350 announced in February and 500 announced in September.
By the batch of 500, Wise had noticed a pattern in the titles of some newspapers and felt something was wrong with them. He emailed some examples to Kim Eggleton, IOP’s lead for peer review and research integrity, with whom he had developed a close relationship through previous work.
As Eggleton told us earlier, the editor began investigating and found other similarities between the papers that suggested there was a source behind the content — perhaps a paper mill. IOP eventually identified nearly 500 papers to be withdrawn.
It’s “very gratifying” that IOP’s investigation confirmed his suspicions, Wise said, and he respects the publisher’s quick response to his tip. The same cannot be said of others.
“For the same reason that those 500 papers were withdrawn at IOP, there are a good ten times as many elsewhere,” Wise said.
Eggleton tells us that she is always grateful for Wise’s help.
“As I understand it, Nick is doing this work in his spare time, and his only motivation is to clean up the science,” she said.
This is true of many detectives, whose work is sometimes—but often not—credited.
“We value the relationship we’ve developed with Nick and a number of other independent ‘sniffer dogs’ who give us clues about things that don’t seem right,” says Eggleton. “They are a valuable addition to the team and complement our internal work on dealing with misconduct.”
Wise said it’s harder to prove that, say, an entire special edition is corrupt without publishers like Eggleton being involved with IOP.
“There’s nothing I or anyone out there can do,” he said. “If you don’t get her engagement, there’s nothing you can do, and that’s pretty frustrating.”
In other cases, Wise has found multiple suspicious elements in an article, such as: B. Many citations, unlikely collaborations between authors in different countries and fields, but no advertising, no smoking gun.
He said he didn’t want to make accusations or judge, just provide evidence.
“Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘There’s definitely something up here, but I really don’t have any evidence—other than that, it looks very unlikely—that anything’s going on.’ I’m thinking about that,” he said. “I’m just a guy.”
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