David Cox, the co-director of a prestigious artificial intelligence laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was scanning an online bibliography of computer science in December when he noticed something strange – his name was named alongside three researchers in China he did not know as an author listed on two papers he did not recognize.
At first he didn't think about it much. The name Cox is not uncommon, so he thought there must be another David Cox doing AI research. "Then I opened the PDF and saw my own picture looking at me," says Cox. "It was amazing."
It's not clear how common this type of academic fraud is or why someone is listing as a co-author someone who is not involved in the research. WIRED checked other articles by the same Chinese authors and found a third example that listed an MIT researcher's photo and biography under a fictional name.
It could be an effort to increase the chances of publication or gain academic standing, says Cox. He said he had heard rumors that academics in China would be offered a financial reward for publishing with researchers from prestigious Western institutions.
Whatever the reason, it shows weaknesses in academic publishing, according to Cox and others. It also reflects a more general lack of rules for publishing articles in AI and computer science, especially where many articles are put online without prior review.
"This stuff wouldn't be so harmful if it didn't undermine public confidence in peer review," says Cox. "It really shouldn't be possible."
Cox, who heads the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a collaboration examining fundamental challenges in AI, has been named co-author of two articles in the niche magazine Cluster Computing. One article looked at a method of machine learning to protect cellular networks from cyber attacks. Another outlined a network scheme for an intelligent transportation system in Macau.
The WIRED identified paper on another intelligent transportation project listed as an author "Bill Franks", allegedly professor in MIT's electrical engineering department. There's no Bill Franks in MIT's electrical engineering department. The paper, which appeared in IEEE Transactions on Industrial Informatics, featured a biography and photo for a real MIT professor, Saman Amarasinghe, alongside the fake name. Amarasinghe did not respond to requests for comment via email and an MIT spokesperson.
"The article in question has been withdrawn"
All three papers have since been withdrawn and the publishers say they are investigating. But Cox was upset that the magazines would even publish something so obviously wrong. He says the IEEE was quick to pull Bill Franks' listing.
"Our investigation found evidence of a violation of IEEE guidelines and, in accordance with our editorial procedures, the article in question was withdrawn," said Monika Stickel, director of corporate communications and branding at IEEE.
But Cox says Springer Nature, the editor of Cluster Computing, didn't remove his name from the two newspapers and issued a revocation until he threatened legal action. He was told that the Journal had received an email confirming that he was an author, even though it was from a Hotmail address.
“The fundamental challenge we face is that publishing has been trustworthy for decades,” says Suzanne Farley, director of research integrity at Springer Nature. "Unfortunately, it has become clear that there are some individuals and groups who want to betray and abuse this trust, as well as cases where there are honest mistakes and misunderstandings."
According to Farley, sometimes academics don't use an institutional email address. In this case, efforts will be made to confirm that the address and the author are legitimate.
According to Retraction Watch, a website tracking cases of academic fraud, one of the Chinese authors, Daming Li, a researcher at the City University of Macau, blamed a junior author, Xiang Yao, who is affiliated with a company Situation Zhuhai Da Hengqin science and technology development. Li told the publication that Yao added Cox's name after "listening to his good ideas" and said the researcher had been fired. Li and Yao did not respond to requests for comment sent via email.
Ruixue Jia, a professor at UC San Diego who studied Chinese science, says the authors may want to "fake international collaboration that is often promoted by universities."
"Inventing the Appearance of Scientific Dialogue"
In a previous example of academic fraud, more than 1,000 articles were withdrawn between 2012 and 2015 because, according to Retraction Watch, one or more of the peer reviewers were found to be fake.
According to Cox, the incident shows how poor the quality of some published academic work is. "In a sense, I think the system happened to me and it works the way it should," he says. "The whole thing is about creating the appearance of a scientific dialogue."
Brent Hecht, a researcher at Microsoft and Northwestern University who focuses on ethical issues around computer science, says the lax approach is broader. Many articles are first published without peer review on arXiv, a server where researchers can read the latest work. He notes that without peer review, the authors' affiliation to these papers can serve as a proxy for legitimacy and quality. “Science is working on a credit economy. So if credits are not properly granted or won, everyone loses, ”says Hecht.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.