Springer retracted 107 papers from Tumor Biology in April.

Emily Petersen

Journal that holds record for retracted papers also has a problem with editorial board members

Almost every scientific journal has to retract a paper once in a while. But at Tumor Biology, when it rains, it pours. Last month, its former publisher, Springer, announced that the journal was retracting 107 papers all at once, after finding that the peer-review process had been compromised. It was the third mass retraction at Tumor Biology, which now holds the unenviable world record for most retracted papers, according to Retraction Watch.

But that’s not Tumor Biology’s only problem. ScienceInsider has discovered that the journal’s editorial board, as published online, contains the names of several scientists who say they have no relationship whatsoever with the journal—including German Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen. Until a few months ago, the board’s membership list even included a researcher who passed away in 2013.  

Tumor Biology is owned by the International Society of Oncology and BioMarkers (ISOBM), and was published by Springer until last year; since January, the journal has been published by California-based publisher SAGE. Its editorial board is supposed to review submissions and offer advice on editorial strategy.

Springer previously retracted articles from the journal in 2015 and 2016—in both cases along with papers from other journals—because of fake peer reviews. Like many journals, Tumor Biology allows authors to suggest reviewers; in this case, the reviewers were either made up, or had the names of real scientists but false email addresses. Manuscripts sent to these fake reviewers invariably received positive reviews that helped get the paper accepted. “We are now reviewing our editorial processes across Springer to guard against this kind of manipulation of the peer review process in future,” the publisher said in an August 2015 statement.

The latest retraction wave came about after an investigation prompted by the 2016 retractions, a Springer spokesperson says. Whereas many previous retractions were for articles from Iran, all the newly retracted papers appear to have originated in China. Springer says there is “some evidence” that companies specializing in manuscript editing and submission, used by some Chinese researchers to help get their papers published, played a role. “It is unclear whether the authors of the manuscripts were aware that the agencies were proposing fabricated reviewer names,” a spokesperson says.

But Springer acknowledges that the journal may be partly to blame. In at least one case, the authors of a retracted article claim they didn’t use an agency and did not propose fake reviewers—which suggests the journal’s editors invited the fake review instead. The spokesperson says that may have happened because editors kept the contact information of fake reviewers in their database. She says an update to the retraction notice will clarify the issue.

Meanwhile, at least five scientists listed as members of Tumor Biology’s editorial board now or before the takeover by SAGE in December 2016 say they have no involvement with the journal or ended their membership many years ago. (ScienceInsider tried to contact every person listed, by email or by phone.) Zur Hausen, of the German Cancer Research Center and Heidelberg University, says he wasn’t aware he was on the list, and that to the best of his knowledge he has never even reviewed a paper for Tumor Biology. Isaiah Fidler from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston says he has “no relationship” with the journal and has asked Tumor Biology’s editor-in-chief, Torgny Stigbrand of Umeå University in Sweden, to remove his name “immediately.” Donna Pauler Ankerst from the Technical University of Munich in Germany says she resigned from the board in 2013, and Abraham Fuks from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, wrote that he “had no contact with the journal or the society for at least fifteen years.”

Seven members of the editorial board could not be contacted, in some cases because they no longer work at the institutes listed on the journal’s website. Manfred Rajewsky of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, who was listed as a board member until the January takeover by SAGE, passed away 4 years ago. (His name is still on Springer’s archived website for Tumor Biology.)

Sixteen board members did not respond to requests from ScienceInsider; six others did but did not answer specific questions about the retractions. Stigbrand did not respond to questions either.

A Springer spokesperson says responsibility for the editorial board lies with ISOBM; the society “exercises sole control of the editorial development and editorial content of the journal,” they wrote. Several current and former ISOBM board members did not respond to questions by email from ScienceInsider; the society’s homepage is currently offline.

A spokesperson for SAGE says the company and ISOBM agreed in December 2016 to restructure the board, and that changes are “currently being made.” The publisher says it has overhauled the peer-review process at Tumor Biology and that manuscripts are now sent to at least two reviewers not recommended by the authors.

Springer has said it will develop tools for its remaining journals that should make the peer-review process more robust and help verify reviewers’ identities.