This digital hygiene routine will protect your purse

A few years ago, one of my mentors was surprised when he realized he was sharing a name with a porn star. He wrote to Google asking that queries under his name not produce rash images. Another advisor learned that a former junior colleague added his name to a conference presentation without his knowledge, presumably to enhance his prestige, and my advisor was charged with undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Such stories are common in academia – and are as likely to result from malpractice as they are from confusion. The names, works or both of the scholars are used by crooked individuals or institutions to deceive others. The magnitude of the problem appeals to me. I shudder imagining the head of research integrity at my university coming to me with a stack of buggy papers – which I’ve never seen before – bearing my name.

Funders, publishers, and institutions all have a responsibility to develop policies that counter scholarly abuse. But individual researchers have a certain power – and a duty – to do so, too. I come up with a “hygiene routine” that scientists should repeat on a regular basis, much like a haircut or a dental exam. The threat of detection and wider community awareness of abuse could reduce established predatory practices and nip those that emerge in the bud.

Every two months or so, I do my own school checkup. These tasks not only protect my own reputation, but also discourage abuse in general. If researchers around the world adopt such a habit, we can prevent the abuse from becoming rampant.

As part of my digital hygiene routine, I research my own name and affiliation in an online search engine to make sure that I am not on the editorial boards of predatory journals or conference boards that I never heard of it. I check to see if I have received an acknowledgment without consent, a form of paternity abuse, which “credits” your support and contribution to an article without your knowledge and suggests that the work represents your point of view. If anything arises, you can contact the corresponding editor or author of the study, copying your own academic administrators or research integrity officers.

Another part is to consult your researcher profile on bibliographic databases, including Dimensions and Google Scholar. Better yet, subscribe to alerts and contact Dimensions, Scopus, or Web of Science if your work is attributed to another scientist with your name, or vice versa. Use citation alerts to correct misrepresentation in your results.

This follow-up will also help you find opportunities. Contact the researchers with whom you have worked. Telling your co-authors who cited your work (and why) can strengthen connections and revitalize unnecessary collaborations. When members of my team saw researchers using software we wrote, we updated it to find the problematic articles and improved the way it scans for “tortured sentences” – which are produced by software from paraphrase to disguise plagiarism – like ‘p- esteem’ (instead of ‘p-value’).

Reviewing activities also requires attention. When reviewing an article, be aware of techniques to evade plagiarism detection and report them to editors. In the “related work” section, look for pasted paragraph strings that have been computer altered to evade plagiarism detectors and mimic an original synthesis of ideas. Reject submissions with such content.

Part of your routine should be to highlight your pro bono and good faith review efforts. How many reviewers read a published article and wondered if the authors even saw their reviews which took hours? Sometimes that’s not the case: Journal editors may not know how to handle reviews, or be pressured to get articles published quickly.

To make your effort visible, add the relevant parts of your review report to PubPeer. Post a comment (signed or unsigned) indicating that you made this review but never saw the refutation of the authors. This will demonstrate that the editors of the journal did not provide helpful comments or left them unanswered. Authors (or other readers) can then provide a point-by-point public response, if they wish. Researchers may find ways to factor these comments into meta-analyzes, or manuscript editors could use them to get a feel for how articles published in their journals are viewed.

As an academic, be aware of and stay up to date with how scammers deceive editors, reviewers, and authors. Browse PubPeer and Retraction Watch. Stay tuned for predatory publishers and their flattering ploys. When you notice a problem in a post, such as incorrect formulas, fabricated data, or manipulated images, post a comment on PubPeer to let the authors know so they can clarify the situation. This will help reviewers and authors to see issues that regularly arise in certain journals. Praise counts too. If you realize that an approach might work beyond the applications described, say so.

These checks are not a panacea for predatory publishers, deceptive practices, ignored reviews, or simple mistakes. Think of it like cleaning a beach: more litter will accumulate, but the more you remove, the cleaner the beach and the more pollution is discouraged.

Researchers no longer accept their tasks being completed once an article is published. If everyone watches their corpus, a scourge of abuse will be quelled – and productive collaborations will develop in its stead.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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