How papermills work (generally)
Who is this man? Do you know him? He operates in the shadows, never to be seen. He is a secret agent! How exciting!
If only that were true… The Agent I want to tell you about doesn’t solve international crime like Jason Bourne, doesn’t have the charm and wit of Napoleon Solo… in fact, he doesn’t even have the tired dad-jokes of 007. He’s a different kind of agent entirely.
What does our Agent do, then?
- Well, first, he (or occasionally she) will look for a Forger to write a fake research paper. The Forger is just someone who knows how to do that. They could be a practicing researcher, or maybe a former researcher.
- Second, our Agent will look for Authors who might pay to have an authorship slot on that fake paper. A lot of these Authors have no publication experience at all — hence the need for an Agent. For that reason, I’ve been referring to these Authors as the ‘Wannabe Authors’ since they want to be authors, but aren’t.
- Finally, the Agent will submit the fake paper to a journal (or several journals!) with the Wannabes listed as authors. The Agent will receive payment upon publication of the fake work.
This Wannabe-Agent-Forger setup is basically how papermills work. Indeed, there are a lot of papermills out there and they are all different.
- Sometimes the Agent and Forger are the same person.
- Sometimes the Wannabe simply buys the fake paper and seeks publication on their own.
- Sometimes a papermill is a large organization working at scale employing Agents and Forgers — no doubt with support staff and so on.
- There are also cases of journal editors and guest editors working with papermills to push fake papers through.
- One oddity is that, occasionally, the papers are actually real. It’s just authorship slots for sale on a real paper.
But there’s the basic format.
I’ve got a few plans for blog posts about papermills. I’m being very careful about what I post — I think it’s important to avoid posting anything that could be used by papermills to avoid getting caught.
However, if I think of something valuable to share, I’ll do that.
- If you’re a publisher reading this, tell your friends.
- Also… find the person in your organisation who uploads your data to Crossref. Find them and tell them to follow this blog.
- You might also particularly recommend this blog to your data scientists, developers, engineers and any other technical folks with an interest in research integrity. There will be things for them here.