False affiliations and fake authors

In this blog post I will talk about scientific papers that use false affiliations or fake authors.

What is an affiliation?

In scientific papers, the “affiliation” is the institute that each author belongs to. It is usually listed below the author names, as the “department, university” of the institute each authors worked at during the time that the study was conducted.

Title and affiliations of a paper I wrote with coauthors Casadevall and Fang. Taken from: https://mbio.asm.org/content/7/3/e00809-16.abstract

In today’s world where science becomes more and more collaborative and multi-disciplinary, papers usually have multiple affiliations, just like the one listed above. And an individual author can be associated with multiple institutions as well, so the affiliation section can become very long.

A paper with a lot of authors and affiliations. So many affiliations that they did not all fit on the first page. Taken from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19373242

Affiliations give credibility to a paper. Just like the impact factor of a journal will set certain expectations (even if we might agree that is not OK!), the institute sets the tone as well. We might not all agree with this, and there are many proposals to not consider country, university, or journal as a measure for the quality of a paper. However, whether we like it or not, a study conducted at an Ivy League university is going to be more respected than a study where all authors are affiliated with a university nobody have ever heard of.

It is not surprising therefore, that researchers from less-known institutions like to collaborate with researchers at well-known universities.

An affiliation means institutional responsibility

The affiliations on a paper are more than just an institutional name or a country where the research was conducted. It also implies that the author worked at an institute that oversees the research integrity of the paper. For example, university A will probably be proud of, but can also be criticized for a study affiliated with university A. And a study affiliated at university B describing mouse or patient experiments is assumed to have been approved by animal care committees and/or institutional review boards at university B. A study performed at university C is also assumed to have been funded by institutional or federal funds granted to the researchers at university C.

In addition, a person who finds research misconduct in one of these papers might write a letter to the Research Integrity Officer at university A or B or C.

So the affiliation of a paper also defines which institution oversees the research integrity of that paper. The authors of a paper are ultimately responsible for the execution of the study, but the university at which the research has been conducted has some responsibility as well.

Research institutions take this responsibility for research conducted at their facilities very seriously, and have boards and committees to ensure that their research follows the rules. Of course, rules and regulations vary per country. Here are some examples of departments or boards that most universities or research institutions within the US or Europe will have (names and abbreviations might vary).

So, with great affiliation there must also come great responsibility (to misquote Spiderman – and many others)!

Incorrect affiliations as scientific misconduct

Publishing under the wrong affiliation – although not specifically included in the ORI definition – could be considered a form of scientific misconduct. Purposefully listing the wrong affiliation is misleading because it might put the responsibility of funding, animal care, or patient research ethics at the wrong institution.

Just to be clear, I am not talking here about whether one can publish research conducted at university A after one moved to university B. That is a very common and acceptable scenario. Usually a researcher will list their affiliation as the place they worked when they actually did the research (sometimes accompanied by a place of current work). It is also OK for researchers to have multiple affiliations (albeit very annoying to fill out when you submit a manuscript, hahahah). And sometimes these affiliations are short or too complex, and it is just easier to leave an institute off. As long as the main institute where the experiments were conducted or where the patients were recruited are correctly included, and as long as any conflict of interest is correctly listed, it is fine if other affiliations are not perfectly listed.

Here, I am talking about an author who lists institute A as an affiliation on their paper, while in reality the author has never worked there. If institute A is very prestigious, that might greatly enhance the perceived value and quality of a paper. So an author might bump up the value of their paper by pretending to work at an institute.

Listing a false affiliation is surprisingly easy to do. Journals do not usually check affiliations. They do not write a letter to university A to see if the author really worked there. If the author lists their personal email address as the corresponding author information, who would ever know?

A recent paper by Vivienne C. Bachelet et al. report about such a scam. In her paper, “Author misrepresentation of institutional affiliations: protocol for an exploratory case study“, Bachelet and coauthors describes authors who report to be affiliated with universities in Chile, while in reality they have never worked there. The paper describes a plan to check all papers published in 2016 included in Scopus that report a Chilean university as an affiliation. Bachelet will use ORCID and institutional database as the source of truth, even though both of these might have errors as well. We look forward to hear about their results!

Examples of false affiliations

In my work looking for papers with concerns about science integrity, I came across a couple of examples of false affiliations.

Many of these papers about space dentistry have been written under the affiliation of the Kepler Space Institute, although the KSI denies the author has ever worked there. This is of concern, because the author reported about experiments performed on human subjects. If the affiliation is not correct, it remains unclear who approved the research proposals – and if that could have been the author himself.

The papers written by an astrophysicist in which he decapitated birds or wanted to infect pregnant women with male and female viruses (see a previous blog post) falsely used an Iranian institute affiliation. A representative from that institute stated on Twitter that the author had been previously fired, but has been abusing his affiliation since then. The RIAAM does NOT support any of this author’s views.

Self-affiliations

Another related problem is the use of a very small or even fake institution as the affiliation on a scientific paper that involves human or animal research.

There is nothing wrong with using the name of your own company or organization, even though the institution might just consist of a single person.

But small-institution-affiliations can get problematic when an author reports patient- or animal-related research, and states that the institutional review board of their institute approved of the research. If the institute only consists of the author or a small number of persons, it is not possible to do an independent assessment of research. Situations like these could be resolved by contacting a commercial IRB, which could offer a much more objective evaluation of a research proposal.

The ‘sexpert’ case I reported about yesterday would be a good example of a self-affiliated paper using human subjects. In this particular paper, he claims to have gone over medical charts of patients who have been treated by drunk physicians. One could only do that with access to detailed and personal patient data, something that would not be possible without IRB approval, since he was not the treating physician. This paper states that “An institutional approval was granted by ethics board of our institution”. Unfortunately, this institution appears to be running from a condo in Staten Island, NY – presumably the author’s home address. Assuming this research was indeed performed as stated, that would mean he granted himself permission to access patient information – something that appears to be unethical.

Scientific paper with human subjects where the affiliation appears to be a 1-person institute.

Unaware authors

In a recent paper in Trends in Chemistry, “Plagiarizing Names?“, Mario Biagioli, professor at UC Davis, writes about unaware and fake authors, two relatively unknown and maybe novel forms of unethical scientific publishing.

Let’s start with the “unaware authors”. This is a form of affiliation-related misconduct in which a real, existing author is falsely included on a paper, without telling him or her. For example an author at a well-known institution might be added to a paper to make it look better. If fake email addresses are used, a journal might unknowingly direct all correspondence back to the cheating author.

To be clear, these false author names are the opposite of “ghost authors“, who are usually defined as professionals writing papers for e.g. biotech companies, but who are not listed as an author. They are also different from “honorary authors“, often senior department heads or professors, who are included even though they contributed little to the paper. Such honorary or “gift” authors usually are informed – and appreciate – that they were listed as an author.

By “unaware authors” I am talking about persons whose name was added as an author on a paper, but who do not know about this. Retraction Watch reported on several of these cases (here, here, and here). Sometimes the email of the unaware author had been faked.

Fake authors

Finally, there is the issue of fake, non-existing authors whose names might be added to papers. In his Trends in Chemistry paper, Biagioli writes about the remarkable case of Javier Grande, who appears as a co-author on several with Jesús Lemus. Grande is usually listed as affiliated with well known Spanish institutions. However, Grande does not exist. He was invented by Lemus.

In another example, Retraction Watch reported on an author who published papers about HPV vaccines using a made-up person, Lars Andersson, who worked at the famous Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

In a recent Retraction Watch post UC Davis professor Biagioli explains that solo authors might sometimes want to add fake names to their papers to make it sound like they were not the only one with the idea. Instead of trying to publish their unconventional opinion by themselves, adding one or more co-authors might make their papers look more plausible or collaborative. In addition, fake authors with fake affiliations at well-known institutions, such as the imaginary Javier Grande and Lars Andersson, might also have been added to give more credibility to the paper.

How to prevent false affiliations or fake authors

How can journals better screen for these fake affiliations or authors? I propose here to look at the email address of the corresponding author. If a person claims to work at University X, but lists their personal email address instead of their UniversityX.edu email address, this could be a potential red flag.

I use the word “potential” because listing a gmail or hotmail address does not have to mean anything. There are lots of good reasons to use a personal address during paper submission, e.g. for people who have left or will soon leave their institutions.

But it could be a red flag, in particular with papers that have unconventional viewpoints or do human-subjects involved research. In such cases, journals might have to require a confirmation by the university’s administration to check if that person indeed works or worked at that institution.

Do you have more examples of confirmed fake affiliations or authors? You can leave a comment below.

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4 thoughts on “False affiliations and fake authors”

    1. How about this situation. An individual registers for part-time study as a master student at a respected University (e.g., Oxford, UK). This individual then co-authors a research article reporting on a clinical trial that was conducted before he became a student. He lists his affiliation as the name of the degree course (which also happens to be the name of a Dept at Oxford), University of Oxford. The individual is also the CEO of a company that sponsored the trial. No-one else from the University is a co-author. None of the research was undertaken at the University. Is this OK?

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