In order to circumvent nagging peer reviewers, South Korean scientist Hyung-In Moon created an elaborate network of fake email addresses and nonexistent experts in his field. Unsurprisingly, all these fake researchers confirmed the perfection of his research. He got away with it for awhile, but now he's been caught and a huge cache of his research has been retracted.
Here's how Moon's scheme worked, according to a post on Retraction Watch, a website that offers "a window into the scientific process." When he sent in his papers for peer review, he suggested a list of qualified potential reviewers. Some of them were real scientists from legitimate universities, but Moon also set up fake email accounts for them—email accounts that only he and his closest colleagues had access to. Other names he made up entirely, creating experts out of thin air.
Moon—a professor at the College of Nature Resources and Life Science of Dong-A University, in Busan, Korea—isn't the first genius to hatch a fake email address racket. Just last month Retraction Watch detailed the case of Guang-Zhi He, a Chinese scientist who got caught faking peer review emails for his research on mini pig cloning. The authors of a paper retracted from Cancer Biology & Therapy in 2010 also tried tampering with email to cover up their work's flaws. And then there's "Computer application in mathematics," a retracted paper which lists one of its co-author's email addresses as email@example.com.
In his own defense, Moon tells Retraction Watch that this whole mess could've been avoided if the editors of International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition and Pharmaceutical Biology performed their roles with more scrutiny. "There is nothing wrong with soliciting reviewers from authors, as long as there are some checks," he says. "Of course, authors will ask for their friends, but Editors are supposed to check they are not from the same institution or coauthors on previous papers." Which is all true, and it's worth noting that the editors share some responsibility for this fiasco, but still, the obvious conclusion here is that researchers shouldn't fool periodicals by concocting bogus peer reviewers.
No one likes having their work torn apart, but the nitpicky peer review process is fundamental to science. It ensures that research dodges avoidable blindspots, that it doesn't settle for the easiest answers or simply strive to confirm biases. Of course, Hyung-In Moon probably knew all this. If this story tells us anything, it's that some people, even very intelligent ones, will do pretty foolish things to avoid a little criticism.