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I was recently contacted by someone claiming to run a "decentralized collaborative team" who cite each other's papers and offering me money for citing their papers ($10 per citation, paid out in at least $1000 chunks), or citations to my papers in return. After responding with publicly available information about myself, I have obtained a list of 37 papers that they want me to cite in an "SCIE/SSCI" publication. These papers seem to be in journals that are not predatory, but I cannot judge the level since they are very far from my field. Is there anywhere I can report this? Would it mean anything if I put in the work to contact the individual publishers or journals?

Just to be clear, I am not planning to cite any of these papers, for money or otherwise. None of them seem even remotely relevant to my research.

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    Well, now you have a list to send to editors of the journals those papers are in...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 27 at 16:38
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    Yes, I could contact editors at each of the journals, but would that even have any effect? There is no concrete evidence about any specific author of these papers being involved
    – ronno
    Commented Mar 27 at 16:41
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    See my answer about Retraction Watch, but I think working with a group like them is your best bet to getting people to take action. Commented Mar 27 at 17:20
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    "$10 per citation, paid out in at least $1000 chunks" - so you need to cite them a 100 times before they pay anything?
    – Bergi
    Commented Mar 28 at 10:06
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    @Bergi I very much doubt that any payment would be made in any circumstances (not that I have any sympathy for anyone who decides to go along with this scam.) It's actually rather sly manipulation to suggest $1000 is possible.
    – sdenham
    Commented Mar 28 at 13:01

3 Answers 3

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Overall, what you have observed is known current and ongoing fraud activity and several news and editorials in Science Magazine talk about this topic (most weeks there is at least one news highlight about high profile retractions in the magazine).

The most actionable question of yours is:

Is there anywhere I can report this?

I'll take a stab at this. Several recent Science Magazine news and editorial articles have discussed this ongoing problem in science (I do not remember the specific articles, but see search results here for examples). A lot of this depends upon their country, funding organization, and home institutions.

You're unlikely to find people to listen, but here is an annotated list of some resources that are mostly focused on the US (where I'm from and most familiar):

  • Retraction Watch (https://retractionwatch.com/) is an international non-governmental organization. I would look there first at their resources. The have had luck pressing European funding agencies and US institutions to hold PIs accountable and retract papers.
  • There is an Office of Resource Integrity in the US Department of Heath and Human Services, and they have a useful handout with resources that answer your questions and provide guidance. Their office was created to address US research misconduct for NIH funded work, but is generally underfunded for their mission. Still a good place to start.
  • The US CDC has as a similar website for CDC funded work.
  • The US NSF has a similar website for NSF funded work.
  • Contact specific universities ethics offices.

I would suggest reaching out to Retraction Watch. They have had to apply pressure to get studies retracted, and, might be open to helping you or including your concerns as part of larger efforts.

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    Whistleblowers, beware. The list they offered you might be personalized. You go and report, say, the 37 articles they suggested you should cite for money. Turns out that list was sent exclusively to you and now they know who the whistleblower is when the DOJ or whichever authority takes the case uses the 37 list verbatim as evidence. Commented Mar 28 at 15:33
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    That seems fair, but it's hard to know what they could do to a whistleblower who had been identified ... ? What avenues would the fraudsters have for retaliation?
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Mar 28 at 23:23
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    Could be "wise" to add papers from everyone who didn't respond favourably to the lists of papers, any whistle-blowing would look like within-ring bickering
    – OganM
    Commented Mar 29 at 2:15
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    @BenBolker joking, fewer citations for your work. Seriously, but less likely people could do retaliatory complaints, threat of legal actions (recall or search for Jeff Beall's experience with Beall's list and the harassment he felt). Low likelihood though. Commented Mar 29 at 12:31
  • After responding with publicly available information about myself - that's not a good start. A good ending would've been on Finance (odd that it isn't a close reason at this point), beginning with don't be an idiot. - "You're unlikely to find people to listen" so, we're done here. +1
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 30 at 19:37
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There is one thing I would like to add to this discussion, that I feel missing:

You have no way of knowing if (all) the papers in your list are actually in on this scam. Now that you gave them a first reply (and possibly even without that reply), they might use your name and papers in future emails. The whole thing is a scam from the beginning, so nothing you read can be taken at face value. Having only papers of actual "team members" would make this far too easy to detect and shut down, compared to mixing in additional papers. Once they found a mark who they notice will actually do the citations, they can always give them a more refined list.

Now that they know you read their emails, I would not be surprised if at some point in the future, they will contact you to let you know that they got you 5 new citations, and to pay up or start citing them.

So my advice would be to:

  1. Never reply to scammers of any kind in the future (you don't want to be on their radar in any way, to reduce the amount of spam you get in the future, but also to avoid them taking your name on future spam emails.)
  2. Don't contact the editors, there will be nothing they can do.
  3. As others said, contact the retraction watch, if you feel like you need to do at least something.
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At first impresion, it seems to me this is a very stupid attempt at gaming the system, but the "collaborative team" may have run their own estimate and found it would be worthwhile.

($10 per citation, paid out in at least $1000 chunks), or citations to my papers in return. After responding with publicly available information about myself, I have obtained a list of 37 papers that they want me to cite in an "SCIE/SSCI" publication.

I am quite sure these people are smart enough to recognise only up to 99 of the citations you give them, so they will avoid paying the amount, so there you go for the part regarding "geting a share of the pie in participating in the scheme". Additionally, what can you say to enforce the payment? The only way to not give them an advantage if you publish the paper with the citations they wanted is to retract the paper ---> so they get no damage, but you would.

Nonetheless, there are two aspects to consider against doing anything at all to stop these scammers:

  • of these papers, maybe the driver of this gaming scheme is just one co-author, so you may involve innocent people in your accusation;
  • spending your time chasing petty offencers is not worthwhile, taking into account in life you have only so much time.

If you feel the urge to invest your free time to improve the world, spend your time helping nice honest people, for example by being a peer reviewer, or just developing open-source tools ...

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    Thanks for the answer! I am not planning to accuse any of the authors of misconduct, but it's a fact that I have received this offer (good faith or not). A couple of hours spent tracking down editors' emails also doesn't seem the worst use of my time, if a little tedious. So I agree with the bullet points in isolation but not with the implication that I shouldn't do anything.
    – ronno
    Commented Mar 27 at 17:13
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    @ronno forwarding this question and the list of 37 papers to retractionwatch seems enough to me.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 27 at 17:29
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    Nice answer! However, "being a reviewer" helps the current publishing system survive, which does not necessarily improve the world. Commented Mar 28 at 7:48
  • @SylvainRibault I feel you are correct, although you can be a reviewer for a diamond open-source journal
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 28 at 11:50

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