Digital magic, or the dark arts of the 21 st century-how can journals and peer reviewers detect manuscripts and publications from paper mills?

FEBS Lett. 2020 Feb;594(4):583-589. doi: 10.1002/1873-3468.13747. Epub 2020 Feb 17.


In recent years, it has been proposed that unrealistic requirements for academics and medical doctors to publish in scientific journals, combined with monetary publication rewards, have led to forms of contract cheating offered by organizations known as paper mills. Paper mills are alleged to offer products ranging from research data through to ghostwritten fraudulent or fabricated manuscripts and submission services. While paper mill operations remain poorly understood, it seems likely that paper mills need to balance product quantity and quality, such that they produce or contribute to large numbers of manuscripts that will be accepted for publication. Producing manuscripts at scale may be facilitated by the use of manuscript templates, which could give rise to shared features such as textual and organizational similarities, the description of highly generic study hypotheses and experimental approaches, digital images that show evidence of manipulation and/or reuse, and/or errors affecting verifiable experimental reagents. Based on these features, we propose practical steps that editors, journal staff, and peer reviewers can take to recognize and respond to research manuscripts and publications that may have been produced with undeclared assistance from paper mills.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Paper
  • Peer Review, Research*
  • Periodicals as Topic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Publishing / statistics & numerical data*