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The cost of fraudulent research

September 29, 2023

By Ann-Marie Roche

Image of laptop with magnifying glass inspecting a document (©

As the publication of fake papers and falsified data increases, access to reliable academic research is more important than ever.

Is it possible that over 300,000 of the roughly 1.3 million biomedical papers published every year could potentially be fake? It’s hard to imagine that so many unreliable academic papers could be out there, yet the authors of a new preprint study(opens in new tab/window) have concluded that that’s how many papers would be red-flagged once you start asking some basic questions about their validity.

An epidemic of fake papers

A deluge of bad research is getting published now, in most cases because of what are known as “paper mills.” In their paper Distortion of journal impact factors in the era of paper mills(opens in new tab/window), published in the Cell Press journal Molecular Therapy(opens in new tab/window), Dr Courtney Bricker-Anthony(opens in new tab/window), Scientific Editor for the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy, and Dr Roland W Herzog(opens in new tab/window), Editor-in-Chief of Molecular Therapy and Riley Children's Foundation Professor of Immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine(opens in new tab/window), explain that paper mills manufacture manuscripts on studies that were never performed, sell authorship on the manuscripts, and submit them to journals on the authors’ behalf. The authors write:

Prof Roland W Herzog, PhD

Prof Roland W Herzog, PhD

Once the mill realizes that a journal is likely to accept their fake papers, they increase submissions to this journal and make sure to frequently cite accepted papers in the masses of subsequently manufactured publications. Rogue editors involved with paper mills can also seize control of special issues to publish a flood of fake papers that cite other fake papers. Hence, fake studies obtain fake recognition in the scientific literature.

Courtney Bricker-Anthony, PhD

Courtney Bricker-Anthony, PhD


In search of a way to spot fake papers, the authors analyzed over 15,000 papers and sent a questionnaire to authors that considered factors such as whether they had a hospital affiliation and an international co-author, and what kind of email address they used (a private email is not a good sign). Papers from Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, India and especially China sent up the most red flags. Though their system cannot tell if a paper is fake, it is a way of identifying papers that may merit further scrutiny.

False research leads to wasted funds and lost time

Having this much bad research in the scientific publication bloodstream can be both costly and dangerous. In 2022, a whistleblower revealed that an Alzheimer’s study published 16 years earlier may have contained falsified information. Because this was a key study with critical findings that spurred subsequent avenues of research, the implications are incredibly serious.

The study had confirmed a theory that the Aβ*56 amyloid protein caused dementia. “Its results inspired a new avenue of scientific research and funding, including pharmaceutical companies developing drugs aiming to break amyloid protein down or prevent its formation to treat Alzheimer’s disease,” wrote Aman Majmudar in The Scientist(opens in new tab/window). “Even as the amyloid-protein theory has gained momentum, studies exploring it have yielded mixed results. Almost half of the funding for research on Alzheimer’s — $1.6 billion — from the National Institutes of Health for this fiscal year went to amyloids-focused research and drug development.”

Medical News Today(opens in new tab/window) has reported that the original paper is now being investigated by the editorial team at Nature but also points out that “to date, the paper has been cited in over 2,200 scientific papers and accessed more than 50,000 times.” If information in the study is proven to have been false, that would be thousands of hours wasted by scientists who could have been following more promising leads. It would be millions of dollars in precious research funds that could have been spent getting closer to a real cure.

This problem is especially concerning for pharmas as they shift to new types of drugs, such as biologics, which requires bigger and bigger R&D spend. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America(opens in new tab/window) (PhRMA) found that among its members, $83 billion USD was spent on private investment in drug R&D in 2019 compared to $38 billion two decades earlier in 2000, making it clear that development costs are rising. With estimated average R&D expenditures(opens in new tab/window) for a new drug in the $1 billion to $2 billion range, there is little room to make mistakes or focus on unproductive lines of research.

Misinformation threatens advances in clean energy

The problem of falsified data and poor research spans sectors. The energy space has been plagued by misinformation, which sometimes arises from untrustworthy academic research. For years, it has been known that 97% of climate scientists(opens in new tab/window) believe humans are causing global warming, and yet the 3% holding the contrary opinion have been able to generate an outsized amount of skepticism of the climate crisis.

A review(opens in new tab/window) published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology sought to replicate the results from the research presented by some of that 3% and found faulty results. Focusing on 38 papers denying anthropogenic global warming that were published in peer-reviewed journals, the authors of the review found a host of problems, including false assumptions, erroneous analyses, lack of important contextual information and insufficient model evaluation.

The consequences of such flawed information and lack of rigor in research is that climate policy measures and clean energy projects have often been slow-walked or derailed completely. Misleading papers and information can inspire YouTube videos, Facebook posts and internet articles that are then shared, amplifying unreliable, cherry-picked or factually inaccurate ideas that then fuel backlashes against vital clean energy initiatives like solar plants and wind farms, as NPR discusses in this report(opens in new tab/window).

This case study(opens in new tab/window) in Biological Conservation even demonstrated how a small group of Brazilian researchers stirred up “fake controversies” and consequently seriously impacted environmental conservation efforts around deforestation and climate change.

Such controversies, fed by misinformation, can create uncertainty and make it harder for companies that are working in clean energy to plan new projects and expand into new areas. To enable these projects to stay on track, and consequently to create more environmentally-friendly green infrastructure and energy, it is important that fake research and false information is not able to proliferate.

Bad data is risky business

No matter which industry you are in, bad research and data poses a major risk to your business or organization. Falsified research and fabrication is an ongoing challenge in scientific publishing, including at Elsevier despite our rigorous processes and guidelines(opens in new tab/window) and continued efforts to remove publications(opens in new tab/window) that appear suspicious. As the risk continues to grow, it’s important to have access to trusted and reliable research from a proven platform. When energy companies are considering the development of new clean energy projects, they have to take the time to explore what’s out there; their engineers will be seeking cutting-edge information on green technologies and processes. They need to be able to be confident in the research they find, which is why ScienceDirect works diligently to ensure the highest quality peer-reviewed publications.

Similarly, pharmaceutical companies must always be careful to begin drug discovery and development projects — which are costly and time-consuming endeavors — with a solid foundation that typically depends on an array of existing research. To confidently make these high-value decisions about which projects to pursue, R&D departments must be able to depend on the research they are drawing from. ScienceDirect can help provide that trustworthy research.

To explore ScienceDirect, including open access articles and newly published titles, visit us here.


Ann-Marie Roche


Ann-Marie Roche

Senior Director of Customer Engagement Marketing


Read more about Ann-Marie Roche