David Cox, the co-director of a prestigious artificial intelligence laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was scanning a online computer bibliography in December, when he noticed something strange – his name was among the authors alongside three Chinese researchers he didn’t know on two articles he didn’t recognize.
At first he didn’t think much about it. The name Cox is not uncommon, so he figured there must be another David Cox doing AI research. “Then I opened the PDF and saw my own photo looking at me.” Coxswain said. “It was amazing.”
It’s unclear just how prevalent this type of academic fraud can be, or why someone would sign up someone not involved in the research as a co-author. Checking out other articles written by the same Chinese authors, WIRED found a third example, where the photo and biography of an MIT researcher was listed under a fictitious name.
It may be an effort to increase the chances of publication or to gain academic prestige, Cox says. He said he heard rumors that Chinese academics were offered a financial reward for publishing with researchers from prestigious Western institutions.
Whatever the reason, it highlights the weaknesses of academic publishing, according to Cox and others. It also reflects a wider lack of rules regarding the publication of articles in AI and computer science in particular, where many articles are published online without prior review.
“This stuff wouldn’t be so damaging if it didn’t undermine public confidence in peer review,” Cox says. “It really shouldn’t happen.”
Cox, who runs the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a collaboration that explores the fundamental challenges of AI, has been credited as the co-author of two articles in the trade journal Cluster Computing. One article was about a machine learning method of protecting mobile networks against cyber attacks; another described a networking program for an intelligent transport system in Macau.
The paper identified by WIRED, on another intelligent transportation project, listed as a “Bill Franks” author, allegedly a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at MIT. There is no Bill Frank in the electrical engineering department at MIT. The paper, which appeared in IEEE Transactions on Industrial Computing, showed a biography and photo of a real MIT professor, Saman Amarasinghe, next to the false name. Amarasinghe did not respond to requests for comment via email and an MIT spokesperson.
All three articles have since been retired and the editors say they are investigating. But Cox was furious that the journals were publishing something so blatantly wrong in the first place. He says the IEEE quickly removed Bill Franks’ list.
“Our investigation revealed evidence of a violation of IEEE policies and, in accordance with our editorial procedures, the article in question was withdrawn,” said Monika Stickel, director of corporate communications and marketing at the mark to the IEEE.
But Cox says it wasn’t until he threatened legal action that Springer Nature, publisher of Cluster Computing, withdrew his name from both papers and issued a retraction. He was told that the newspaper received an email confirming him as the author, although it was from a Hotmail address.
“The fundamental challenge we face is that publishing has worked for decades on trust,” says Suzanne Farley, director of research integrity at Springer Nature. “Unfortunately, it has become clear that some individuals and groups intend to deceive and abuse this trust, as well as cases in which there are honest mistakes and misunderstandings.”
Farley says that sometimes academics do not use a corporate email address, in which case efforts are made to confirm that the address and author are legitimate.
According to Retraction watch, a website that tracks academic fraud cases, one of the Chinese authors, Daming Li, a researcher affiliated with Macao City University, blamed the situation on junior author Xiang Yao, affiliated with a company 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 was fired. Li and Yao did not respond to email requests for comment.