The deceiving scientist: an evil to tackle

Author: Juan F. Trillo, PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy (U. Autónoma de Madrid), PhD in Literary Studies (U. Complutense de Madrid).

Photo: Bernd Klutsch / Unsplash

Deception is natural. All animals do it as a survival strategy; prey to avoid predators and predators to catch prey. Intraspecies deception, however, occurs mainly in the most intelligent species, for example among cephalopods, corvids and, of course, apes. Studies on the subject have found a direct relationship between the size of the neocortex and the ability and/or frequency of deception of members of the same species or ‘tactical deception’ 1. In these cases, the most frequent goal is no longer mere survival, but status enhancement within the group. And since this is a trait closely linked to intelligence, it is not surprising that among humans it has become an inherent trait. In every culture for as long as there has been record, humans have deceived each other for a wide variety of benefits, and as our technological evolution and social structures have become more complex, our deceptions have become more sophisticated.

Scientists, as human beings, are not free from these behaviors, even though they are considered by the academic community as ethically, and sometimes legally, reprehensible acts. Cheating has always accompanied scientific activity, but in recent times it has spread notably in one particular area of this particular social ecosystem: scientific publications. Driven by the need to present a CV with as many published papers and articles as possible, many scientists resort to buying papers written by others and then submitting them to journals under their own name. This peculiar form of deception has grown to such an extent that there are now “companies” —known in this underworld as “paper mills”— that sell scientific articles whose content is of very low quality or outright false. It is the old economic law of supply and demand; if there is a demand in the market, you can be sure that someone will satisfy it.

It is difficult to know for sure how many fake trials are published annually —the journal Nature estimates that around 70,000 fake papers were published in 2022, which would be around 1.5% of the total— but what is known is that, in a field where rigor and veracity are values that stand above all others, the damage they cause in terms of credibility is considerable. And after years of repeated complaints from numerous agents involved in the world of scientific publishing, it finally seems that a small (for the moment) group of publishers and research organizations —including Elsevier, European Research Council, National Research and Innovation Agency, Springer Nature, Royal Society of Chemistry or Taylor & Francis, for example— have decided to join forces to put an end to this problem or, at least, to prevent it from continuing to grow until it is too late. This joint initiative has taken the form of a working group called United2Act and in its declaration of intent they set out a plan of five immediate actions: in the field of education and awareness-raising of all actors involved, in the improvement of the post-publication correction system, in the direct investigation of paper mills, in the development of new tools to verify the identity of the authors of papers submitted for publication and in the maintenance of a sustained debate on this problem over time.

United2Act thus joins groups such as the STM Integrity Hub, which aims to maintain trust and a high level of integrity among its partners, which comprise up to 66% of all scientific publications worldwide. These are well-intentioned initiatives, but ultimately depend on the willingness to correctly apply the protocols that all publications have in place to prevent fraud. We should not forget that the double-blind peer review system, which has been in place for fifty years, was established precisely to prevent cases like these.

And yet, by the mid-1990s, the Sokal Scandal —with its infamous article claiming that quantum gravity was a social construct— and others like it revealed that such protocols are of little use if their application is negligent or outright biased. In these cases, and despite the fact that the scandals mainly affected publications in the social sciences and humanities, it became clear that the peer review system is not infallible if those who apply it do not do their job properly. The direct consequence of these fake papers is that the serious and rigorous research work carried out by the vast majority of the scientific community is undermined by the public’s mistrust of the entire collective. Deception may be a natural behavior, but in human society in general, and in the scientific ecosystem in particular, it should have no place.


  1. Byrne, R. and Whiten, A. (1991). Computation and mindreading in primate tactical deception. In Natural Theories of Mind: Evolution, Development and Simulation of Everyday Mindreading. Whiten, A. (ed.). pp. 127-141. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

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