When Emails Asking to Withdraw Manuscripts Started Repeating Themselves, an Editor Got Suspicious

Ellie Kincaid

October 03, 2022

In late 2021, editors at Laboratory Investigation noticed something strange. The journal was receiving far more emails than usual asking to withdraw manuscripts that were already being peer reviewed. And some of the emails were strikingly similar, even using the same unusual language. 

A total of five identical emails said that the authors had new results to add to the manuscript: 

We feel that we have not yet studied our work completely and some new great results are discovered. After carefully thinking, we are going to rearrange this manuscript and try to give more precise model. Thus we decided to withdraw this manuscript in great pity. Of course, after re-preparation, you will find this lovely manuscript in your journal. 

Four emails said that the sender’s "tutor said that there are certain problems in the current experimental content." And another four said "we found that some updates should be added to this manuscript and it should be rearranged." 

The messages spurred Catherine Ketcham, managing editor of the journal, and her colleagues to assess the withdrawal requests they received in 2020 and 2021. She found that nearly 5% of manuscripts under review were withdrawn, and many had been submitted to other journals simultaneously. They presented their findings in a poster at the Peer Review Congress in Chicago earlier this month. 

Laboratory Investigation, a journal of the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology, received 36 email requests to withdraw manuscripts in those two years. Twenty of those manuscripts were published in other journals, Ketcham and her colleagues found by searching PubMed.

Looking at the submission, revision, acceptance, and publication dates of those articles and comparing them to the submission, decision, and withdrawal dates at their own journal, Ketcham and her colleagues found that 17 of the papers had been under consideration at both publications simultaneously. All of those duplicate submissions came from authors based in China. 

"Duplicate submission appears to be a deliberate strategy," Ketcham and her colleagues wrote in their poster. In comments to Retraction Watch, Ketcham speculated about why: 

It appears as though there are authors who feel justified in submitting a single manuscript to two or more journals simultaneously in order to publish more quickly and/or make the least possible number of revisions to the original version of the manuscript. Since it is hard for editors to detect this type of behavior, it may be seen as low risk/high reward.

The 36 withdrawn manuscripts were a small fraction — 2.3% — of the journal’s 1,550 total submissions in 2020-2021, and 4.6% of the 787 that were sent to peer review. 

Still, in the poster, they summed up their findings like this: 

Duplicate submissions are dishonest, a waste of reviewers’ and editors’ time, and may be a bigger problem than we thought. 

When Ketcham and her colleagues quantified the withdrawal emails with repeating language, they found about half of the emails shared the same sentences with each other. 

We asked Ketcham what if she thought paper mills could be behind the duplicate submissions and requests for withdrawal with similar language. She told us: 

It is certainly possible that paper mills were involved. Or it may be that a network of legitimate authors who willingly engage in duplicate submissions shared letter templates. We had made some effort to determine that the authors were legitimate, and our highly qualified editors had determined that the manuscripts were worthy of peer review. Whether my journal would ultimately have accepted any of these manuscripts is difficult to say.

Ketcham added that she thought banning authors would not be too severe: 

Our new publisher as of January 2023 has a duplicate submission check that screens all submissions against other material in consideration by other journals that they publish, which is helpful. (Our present publisher did not offer us this.) It would be beneficial to be able to screen across publishers, though perhaps privacy regulations may make this impossible. I do believe that there needs to be a consequence for this behavior, and though COPE recommends against banning authors, I think it might be appropriate.


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