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I was reviewing an application for a grant and found out that one of the applicants has included a publication on his CV that does not exist in the journal. It was supposedly published several years ago. I counterchecked the list of publications of that particular journal, including the issue and volume, but it's non-existent. I also googled the title and checked the Google Scholar account of the applicant -- the paper could not be found.

Is this an academic offense? How can I investigate further, and what should I do if I am ultimately unable to find any proof of this paper's existence?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 17:07

7 Answers 7

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Do not contact the applicant directly: There is a reason why reviews of grant applications are anonymous, and you would be undermining the refereeing process by such an action. Instead, contact the funding agency that solicited your review, explain the situation and ask them for advice. They may choose to contact the applicant or another course of action.

For the record: I reviewed numerous grant applications to various funding agencies from the US, Canada, Latin America and Europe (three per year on average). I never encountered a grant application which contained a reference to a nonexisting paper.

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    @DavidS: The answer is meant, in part, to counter the utterly wrong advice coming from some comments and other answers. My answer also suggests the (correct) course of action. How come that "it provides advice for a situation different from what is being asked" is beyond me. For the record: I reviewed numerous grant applications to various funding agencies from US and Europe. I never encountered a grant application which contained a reference to a non-existing paper. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 23:55
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    @DavidS The advice given is: tell the funding agency what you think happened and then let them figure it out.
    – quarague
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 7:44
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    @DavidS This answer directly addresses a major problem in the question: the OP says the applicant is making a false claim, but from the OP's description of he came to that conclusion, the conclusion isn't justified. (The OP has evidence that should be further investigated, but there are other plausible explanations for not being able to find the paper, such as an incorrect journal name in the reference.)
    – cjs
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 11:23
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    @DavidS perhaps this doesn't answer the specific question OP (originally) asked, but since you could say the same about all other answers I don't see why you have singled this one out. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 13:58
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    @DavidS Question: How to investigate further? Answer: reach out to the funding agency. I am not sure why you don't think that this answer applies.
    – Aubreal
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 18:51
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You only really have a few options, if the granting institution is "typical".

  1. Your best option is to contact the person coordinating the review with your concern (in the NIH hierarchy, that may be a program officer or scientific review officer).
  2. You can ignore the issue.
  3. You can hold hold on to the issue, saving it for synchronous discussion if the review panel functions that way (I suspect anyone else on the panel would be miffed that you didn't raise the issue with the review officer if you did that, and the review officer would probably not be happy either)

FWIW, if a grant reviewer contacted me [the applicant] in any way about the review of one of my grants during the review period, I would immediately contact the Scientific Review Officer for the study section, and maybe (after reading up on the rules) the study section chair. I'd probably request that the reviewer be placed in conflict for the grant, which means (for the NIH, anyway) that the reviewer would not even be allowed to be in the room for the review, let alone submit anything in writing that the rest of the panel had access to. I suspect that request would be honored. I also suspect that, at the very least, the panel administrators would explain the error of their ways to the reviewer involved (at the very least).

Sitting on top of this analysis is the realization that many people in the room are looking for an excuse to assign a grant an unfundable score (not that I approve of that), and raising this issue during the review may well poison the grant for funding.

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    I also suspect that, at the very least, the panel administrators would explain the error of their ways to the reviewer involved (at the very least). I don't get what you mean here. If there's an error in ways it's either with the candidate's way of submission or the way of the review process which didn't envisage a potential exploit within it. The hapless old reviewer is a victim of all this and it's naked scapegoating to suggest there may be any error in his/her ways. Or do you mean something else ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 13:57
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    @Trunk that sentence is talking about a scenario where a reviewer has contacted the grant writer directly, thus breaking anonymity. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 14:02
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    Oh. I thought SS was positing himself as the main admin of a batch of grant applications. Apologies. All clear now.
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 14:10
  • As well as the three options offered, you could of course submit a review that included the statement that one of the references appeared to be spurious. Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 12:29
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There is a mismatch between your question and the content of the question. From the content of the question, it looks like you could not find the problematic publication. However, the question you pose is already assuming that you did everything that is possible to find the publication.

First: ask yourself (and SE:Academia community) if you really did everything you could to find the mentioned paper.

Second: since we live in a civilized world (or at least we try to have it that way), there is one important concept:

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE

So unless you have sound proof of the publication being consciously and delibaretely fake, you should take a more neutral approach to the matter (i.e., replace the false word from the title).

One final consideration:

"checked the google scholar account of the applicant"

Google Scholar (GS) is just the name of a data-harvesting service, powered by a very obscure algorithm developed by an advertising company called Alphabet. If an item has not been indexed by GS, it does not mean the something does not exist. And even if an item is indexed by GS, you still should have reasonable doubts about the accuracy of the item.

If you really want to use efficently your time when looking for articles&co., the same 5 minutes you spend on the internet in Google Scholar, they can be more efficently spent by sending an email to your trusted librarian(s).

Other approaches may include contacting the co-authors, contacting the author, but those may be not viable because of independence or confidentiality of the application review you are performing.

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    @xavier which academic practice? You have not established the fact to conclude at a practice. Also, have you considered contacting the journal?
    – PsySp
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 13:55
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    The practice of including a paper that doesn't exist. No need to contact the journal because they have all their issues online. Google Scholar and the worldwide web is enough to know if the paper exist or not.
    – xavier
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 14:00
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    @xavier As people have suggested, you might find it helpful to contact the author in case there is a benign explanation. If you are 100% convinced that the person deliberately lied, then better inform yours and, most importantly their, responsible department. But as I have mentioned above, even the ex-Dutch minister of Finance lied like that, but since you cannot prove that it was deliberate, then nothing happens.
    – PsySp
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 14:14
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    @xavier By the standard you propose, there would be conclusive evidence that Stedman (Mar. 1963, "'Heat' and 'work' in the school", Educ. Train. **5**(3):127-128) does not exist. It exists regardless. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 21:41
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    @DanielHatton Stedman?.. I only found a paper by this name by some E.J. LeFevre, and the corresponding issue can easily be found online, albeit paywalled: emerald.com/insight/publication/issn/0040-0912/vol/5/iss/1
    – Lodinn
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 7:35
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It seems to me that there's always an onus on the applicant to correctly specify all the necessary details of his publications: the stuff we were all told to quote as undergrads: journal title, paper title, authors, vol number, issue number, page numbers x - y.

You imply that the journal vol and issue numbers provided didn't yield any paper by the applicant. You can put his application on hold pending more details being provided urgently from the applicant.

I don't think it's your job to hunt down other sources resulting from typos, author omission or similar journal titles - you have enough to do and it's the candidate's job to get that right.

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    I would think all mechanisms of "putting an application on hold" involve talking to the people administering the review process. Aside from simply not submitting a review (which is probably frowned upon), there is no way for a reviewer to do this on their own. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 23:18
  • @Scott So communicate the bother to the admins.
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 13:40
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@EarlGrey has mentioned presumption of innocence without given context about how this has happened. Here is one very possible scenario where this is just a mix up:

When there are multiple authors it is easy to get some details wrong, or mix them up. The paper could be published in another journal even with another name. It is entirely possible for other authors to change the title and send paper to another journal after a reject. It is also possible for the author to forget or even never noticed about this issue. At a later date, other authors might have sent an email stating the paper is published and the author has included the reference to the paper, in the original form to their CV.

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I often review grant applications for the EU. I regularly encounter this problem, which is why I always spot-check one or two of the references given. However, I am prohibited from contacting the applicant, so I take this up with my contact at the agency. I have also found blatant plagiarism in grant applications that caused the applicant to have to refund money from a previous grant. Sometimes the agency takes no action (a woman in a recent application had an entire paragraph referring to the PI as a man, which made me think copy/paste, but the agency said: that's okay). Sometimes they downscore the application. Sometimes more action is taken, but that is beyond the scope of my review.

So my advice for applicants ist: Make sure your references are findable and correct!

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For clarification, you may consider asking the applicant directly. There might be a silly explanation that avoids all confusion.

Of course, depending on the answer of the applicant, you may take the necessary steps.

Claiming something that doesn't exist is of course a very serious academic offense. That is why you should not hesitate asking applicants in case you have doubts or things do not add up. Something polite along the lines "We were checking your CV and we were wondering where we can find your such-and-such publication."

Edit: I answered without looking at the comments. I still believe that directly contacting the author, either personally or through some other channels of the university (e.g. secretary) is possibly the only course of action that can clarify things at this point.

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    OP is doing a review of grant applicants. OP may not be allowed to contact directly the author(s), but surely OP can mention/note to the comitee evaluating the grant that one of the publications could not be find and additional informations should be required.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 13:23
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    Let me add that it is not merely an academic offense, it is also a legal one. You could literally go to jail for this in my country. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 13:38
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    Just to be crystal clear for anyone reading this, contacting a grant applicant during the process of a grant review about what's in the grant is pretty much universally a very bad idea. I can't think of a single instance where it would be appropriate. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 17:29
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    Actually what the OP did, checking outside sources, is questionable in some grant processes. It is often dictated that only materials in the grant application may be considered, as to prevent page limit cheating, e.g. visit this PDF for 25 more pages of proposal content. I would carefully review the rules before proceeding.
    – user71659
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 17:59
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    @user71659 There seems to be quite a difference between including outside content beyond page limits and verifying that a paper on a CV actually exists; do you have an actual specific example of a grant process that would forbid checking items on a CV exist? At least for the grants I'm most familiar with, one of the scoring criteria involves evaluating whether the personnel on a proposed grant have the collective background and expertise to do the work.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 19:56

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