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Authorship for sale

12 February 2023

New information about authorship for sale

From time to time new publications about publishing and writing appear and I make a note that I will need to update my book chapters accordingly. A preprint on rXiv by Abalkina (2022) prompted this particular revision to How to Publish in Biological Sciences. You can find the full book chapter here: When should you be an author?

When William Blake wrote about the dark satanic mills, he wasn't thinking of the paper mills (see here) that are now a growing feature of academic life. However, the description seems rather apt. Like other aspects of academic publishing, when money is involved there are forever increasing ways in which integrity in academic publishing is compromised. 

Paper Mills

The concept of a paper mill is rather different from ghost authors or even salami-slicing (Part IV). Paper mills involve third parties, often not included on the author line acting as intermediaries. A paper mill may either be producing material for publication from scratch: i.e. companies that specialise in producing content that will pass peer review for those who want to buy authorship. Or they may be third party organisations that sell a position in the author line of a legitimate paper. Given that the world of paper mills is particularly shady, there is likely no hard distinction between these types of paper mill but a large grey blur between completely fake at one end and legitimate novel research (including non-legitimate authors) at the other.

Authorship for sale

A number of years ago there was evidence that first authorship on publications was for sale (Hvistendahl, 2013). We know is that there are benefits to those who are put on the author line. In many countries, being an author on a scientific research publication (sometimes with the stipulation that it is indexed by Scopus or Web of Science) is a requirement for obtaining graduation or promotion; especially in the medicine.

Adverts for authorship have appeared in social media (including Facebook and Telegram), stipulating the date of publication, the country of the journal, the number of co-authors and even the title of the research paper (Abalkina, 2022). Adverts indicated that buying authorship ranges from hundreds to thousands of USD, depending on the position in the author list and the perceived quality and Impact Factor of the journal. By matching historical adverts with subsequently published titles and authors, Abalkina (2022) managed to calculate the profits to one Russian publishing house (International Publisher LLC) to the tune of USD 6.5 million. While this ‘service’ was offered on Russian social media, the co-authors of advertised articles were from 39 countries. The nature of the adverts sometimes indicated editorial collaboration in the fraud, including having the editor as a co-author, thereby increasing the chances of publication success. Indeed, adverts often claimed no risk of rejection and no risk of detection given that editors and illegitimate authors both signed non-disclosure contracts with the publishing house.

The size and global impact of this fraud has attracted international attention (Else, 2023), and the websites and many of the adverts on social media have since disappeared. However, given the countries influencing this trade in authorship includes China, Russia and Iran (Abalkina, 2022), we can expect that this trade will not disappear, but simply become less blatant in its nature.

What can you do? - Certainly it is good practice to know who your co-authors are, even if you don’t know them personally. If you are the corresponding author, it is your responsibility to know the contributions (and therefore legitimacy) of every author your paper’s author list (see below)

Fabrication of research

Writing fake research, or that which contains fake results and data, is covered in another part of this book (see Part IV). Those that produce the manuscripts generally rewrite text and pull protocols from manuscripts that are already published. Results are often images that have already been published and/or are manipulated to suit the content (Else & Van Noorden, 2021). Hence, paper mills are a systematic and deliberate manipulation of the publication process (see Teixeira da Silva, 2021).

Read More:

Abalkina A. 2022. Publication and collaboration anomalies in academic papers originating from a paper mill: Evidence from a Russia-based paper mill. DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.2112.13322.

Else H. 2023. Multimillion-dollar trade in paper authorships alarms publishers. Nature 613:617–618. DOI: 10.1038/d41586-023-00062-9.

Else H, Van Noorden R. 2021. The fight against fake-paper factories that churn out sham science. Nature 591:516–519. DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-00733-5.

Hvistendahl M. 2013. China’s Publication Bazaar. Science 342:1035–1039. DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6162.1035.

Teixeira da Silva JA. 2021. Abuse of ORCID’s weaknesses by authors who use paper mills. Scientometrics. DOI: 10.1007/s11192-021-03996-x.

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