Not the JVC peer review ring, an actual
gambling ring. Credit: China Daily

It's something of a mild joke in science circles - you can figure out who is peer-reviewing your paper by looking for the common author in the citations you 'missed' in your submission.

It was only a matter of time before peer review cabals became an actual strategy somewhere.

Why did it take so long? Growing up in Florida, there were ancient tales of developers buying up useless land, selling it to a friend, selling it again to other friends, then the final person takes out a loan against it and defaults and they all split the profits. In the 1980s, a circle of brokerages did the same thing with penny stocks; they would all make a market in something and sell it off to customers in a rotation, buying it up again, to the delight of early participants. Then the brokers whose turn was due would get their customers to buy it, everyone else would sell, and the unlucky investors were stuck holding the worthless investment.

Why did it take so long to happen in journals? In science it may be that scientists, by and large, are more ethical. I'd buy that. If it is happening, it is covert. Certainly that is the claim laid against climate scientists, but that claim is made by outsiders. What happened with the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC), a technical publication about acoustics by SAGE is different - it was exposed by the publication itself.

130 aliases for reviewers. In one instance, Peter Chen of the National Pingtung University of Education (NPUE) in Taiwan reviewed his own paper.

Does that sound shocking?

It happens at one prominent science journal in America all of the time, but I have a piece going into America's premiere national newspaper about that so I don't want to duplicate it here. Peer review has become lax and this is an instance where pay-to-publish open access journals and their desire to increase revenue aren't the culprits. It's also traditional journals desperate for pageviews, subscription fees and impact factor.

Fred Barbash at the Washington Post calls it a peer review ring and likens it to gambling and extortion rings, but when journals that once had value suddenly lose their intellectual currency, it's more like those penny stocks in the 1980s. It's good the journal heads are the ones who caught it, they are to be commended for that, but it still speaks to the weakness in the system all along.

As always, if you want to follow the sordid details as they happen, head over to Science 2.0 fave Retraction Watch and get the whole story.