Academic Publishing Guest post paper mills

Papermill – your local partner for Special Issues in China

Did you know that special issues are better than regular issues and better than special issues?

This is a guest post by the anonymous PubPeer detective “Parashorea tomentella” (invited by Tiger BB8 and Smut Clyde), who wants to provide you with a view on Chinese papermills from inside China. It is an uneasy but mutually lucrative business relationship between greedy scholarly publishers from Europe and their local partners catering to their customers’ special needs. Key to the thriving business are the so-called Special Issues and their “Guest Editors”.

Expanding the Niche for Special Issues in China with Local Partners

By “Parashorea tomentella”

Journals benefit by publishing special issues that are an extension of their impact. As Hindawi says,

special issues “provide a venue for research on emerging areas, highlight important subdisciplines, or describe new cross-disciplinary applications”.

It could be inferred that the niche market for special issues in China is in research universities and institutions because that’s where the potential guest editors, authors and readers are. There are already some publishers competing for this niche, such as Frontiers, one of the earliest pioneers. The publishers attract authors to contribute to their special issues (research topics) by inviting well-known Chinese scholars as guest editors.

Figure 1. A popular special issue published by Frontiers, edited by Prof. Tong, the inventor and sales champion of Qingfei Paidu Decoction.

However, the number of scientists in this niche, and the manuscripts they can submit, are limited, because the authors have the option of publishing in regular issues, and they are not able to produce so many manuscripts anyway. As a result, the publishers will look to make their journals accessible to more people as authors who can contribute article processing charges (APC). This business expansion is directed to community colleges, polytechnics, and non-teaching hospitals. This assertion can be derived from Smut Clyde’s spreadsheet which is filled with records of over 2,200 problematic papers published in special issues of Hindawi journals found by several detectives (read here).

Cyclotron Branch, Before the Fall

“sadly, no-one could find any other evidence of existence for these festively-named individuals, who may well be Knock-Knock jokes that somehow gained sentience.” – Smut Clyde

In China, college faculty, doctors and engineers need to publish papers. In the “Application and Evaluations Criteria for Teachers’ (Laboratory Technicians) Middle and Senior Professional and Technical Positions in Higher Education Institutions in Henan Province” issued by the Human Resources and Social Security Department of Henan Province, the specific criteria for journal publications required to get promotion are listed. To become a teaching-oriented associate professor, you need to publish two papers, and to become a research-oriented or associate professor with equal emphasis on teaching and research, you need to publish a paper in SCI journals, or as an alternative, three or four papers in Chinese journals. Book publications can substitute in whole or in part for journal publications, but this is usually even more difficult because of the censorship and control of book publishing.

Figure 2. Map showing the province of the corresponding author’s affiliation in the spreadsheet “Hindawi” (Status 16 Oct 2022).

However, there are barriers to potential members of this “second-tier” niche. They need papers but are not always able to complete a manuscript. More importantly, they do not know the publishers and journals and cannot see what publishers are putting out there. Hence, as with any foreign companies seeking to expand their business in China, publishers need local partners.

Solicitation in Local Partnerships

The role of these local partners is (broadly speaking) paper mills, but I am going to call them local partners for now because there is no evidence of a specific structure for any of the paper mills. 

Local partners have some functions. First, they connect with the customers. With the help of compromised personal data, local partners can be informed of potential customers’ phone numbers, email addresses, WeChat ID, and their specific needs for publications. They can talk to potential customers, yet inviting them to contribute to a special issue remains a confusing issue, because the majority of the staff in community colleges, polytechnics, and non-teaching hospitals has no idea of what each journal is, what special issues are, and who these strange “guest editors” are. The functions that customers can understand are: agency submission and manuscript pre-review. Certainly, they should be available in a version with special services.

Figure 3. It is said that there are excellent editors in the editorial office.

An agency that has been in business for years, Oriental Journal Alliance (Dongfang Qikan Lianmeng), pushes their ads through Key Opinion Leader (KOL) influencer function on WeChat (example here, archived version here). This agency argues that customers should buy their services because the agency can help customers complete a manuscript and then select journals and refine the manuscript through direct communication with editors on the editorial board without the author’s involvement.

Figure 4. Four months at the earliest! 100% acceptance!

A pre-review platform, Peipu, placed a long-term advertisement on the WeChat Official Account of Zhiyun, a popular pdf viewer in China. It is necessary to clarify that there is no evidence of any other relationship between Zhiyun and Peipu. Peipu has an inspiring website (archived version here). The introduction:

“The pre-review system can help manuscript-writing researchers to quickly judge whether your manuscript meets the journal’s acceptance criteria. Peipu has formed a long-term and good relationship with international journals. After your manuscript is submitted to Peipu’s pre-review system, the editor will evaluate the quality of the paper as soon as possible. Once the pre-review is passed, 100% acceptance can be achieved if the revision is made according to the editor’s comments to improve the quality of the manuscript.”

I think their promise shows that the so-called agency submissions and pre-reviews are just camouflage and that the manipulation of the publishing process is the reality, and that customers can understand from the offer that they are actually buying a service of paper mill.

I know many people would consider the direct collaboration with editors and the absence of peer review, promised to customers by these local partners, to be a unethical or even criminal. But actually, this all can be achieved perfectly “legally” – for special issues. Guest editors do not need to be Chinese or well-known scholars in China, only someone who is willing to sign their name. Guest editors, or agents provided to them by the local partners, might personally review manuscripts they handle. They host the peer review and have the right to make decisions. Yes, editorial oversight exists, it is supposed to be still alive in some places. It is not clear how many manuscripts these agencies like Oriental Journal Alliance and Peipu submitted to special issues, but the possibility of submitting to special issues would not be prohibited in the contract, I guess.

Figure 5. I still have not found that paper on patriotism education in Russia by Zheng & Lan.. Source: PubPeer

By the way, customers are expected to provide the first draft, so the author may be the source of some errors in the published version because local partners cannot, or will not, revise the parts provided by the customer.

Figure 6. [sic]. Source: PubPeer

And local partners do not seem to offer full services, such as dealing with post-publication peer review.

Customized Disinformation

Customers of paper mills claim in some cases that they are victims. I think they may indeed be victims because these papers may be invalid for their promotion in the first place, due to the policies of the Chinese authorities. Let me explain.

Figure 7. Excerpts of documents issued by the Human Resources and Social Security Department of Henan Province.

According to MDPI, “A Special Issue is not an issue of the journal”, a position that the Chinese authorities have held consistently on various occasions. A series of documents issued by the Human Resources and Social Security Department of Henan Province state that papers published in special issues cannot be used for promotion for college faculty, doctors and engineers. This is a long-standing rule since it has been in earlier versions of these criteria. Documents issued by other provincial governments in China Proper also mention such things, like Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan. In this way, Chinese government policies are preventing international publishers from making money in China with special issues, with Chinese authors in need of papers for a promotion being decisively urged not to contribute to special issues. What is the agencies’ solution? Spreading disinformation, of course!

Figure 8. A new independent, autonomous, and controllable status comparison.

In the Chinese version of Quora, Zhihu, there are at least two versions of press releases telling people that special issues are better than regular issues and better than special issues. You read it right: special issue > regular issue > special issue. The superior special issue is the type in which papers are published interspersed with the regular issues. In common databases, these papers often do not have any markings to indicate that they were published in a special issue. Authorities often rely on databases to identify publications, so these papers can be valid. This has been interpreted to mean that such special issues are labels given by journals to studies on specific topics, with no mention of the involvement of guest editors. Accordingly, the inferior type of special issue refers to papers that are marked in common databases as published in a special issue. In another version of the press release, a submission agency employee rebuked the customer’s distaste for special issues, and said they knew of many graduate students at top universities who preferred special issues, as proof that special issues were not inferior to regular issues.

This disinformation may be damaging to publishers because it is disturbing the vested interests of scholarly publishing. But it’s important for local partners, how else are they going to expand this niche?

Disruptive Citation Manipulation

If you need a breakthrough growth in your business, you need disruptive innovation. If you want to sell citations, you need disruptive citation manipulation, which means that the relevance of the reference to the text is not necessary. Luckily, your authors won’t notice or mind the long lists of nonsense references in the papers they buy.

PubPeer detectives found thousands of irrelevant references in papers published in special issues of Hindawi journals. A number of possible citation origins have been identified, including the use of a wallpaper pattern generator, the hasty use of what appears to be a relevant reference, and the referenced researcher being a guest editor for special issues of Hindawi journals. In this way, it is still difficult to determine whether manipulation was performed by editorial board members, guest editors, or by local partners.

Figure 9. I am honored to award my Citation Laureate to Ruihang Huang of Donghua University.

A special case in point is the hundreds of citations to Ruihang Huang‘s papers. He may be the most cited author, although most of the citations are irrelevant. The reason for these citations is unknown. It would be helpful if Wiley and Hindawi were willing to investigate the reasons for the citation of Huang’s papers (e.g, here, here, here and here).

[Citation not needed]

“Even university management eventually realised that self-citations of your work, in your own papers, shouldn’t really count (“see ‘Toenail Clipping Microphotographs, Part 1’, S, Clyde 2018″). So people progressed to citation cabals among cronies, referring to each other’s work” – Smut Clyde

Ending with Retractions?

In September 2022, Retraction Watch reported that Hindawi’s publishing house Wiley plans to retract 511 papers from sixteen journals. Some have referred to the expanding niche for special issues in China as a “romance scam”, which means publishers will retract papers from special issues after charging a large number of APCs, once again swear by their dedication to integrity, and leaving the authors in the lurch. For those who are already inside the academic niche, they may see the massive number of retractions as an improvement. But for the staff in community colleges, polytechnics, and non-teaching hospitals, even if they did not submit manuscripts to Hindawi journals, they feel betrayed.

A report entitled “Publishing Ecology in China 2021” signed by Xiaofafa mentions that the number of papers published in reputable Chinese journals is declining. From 2012 to 2021, the number of publications declined by an average of 2.4% per year, for a total decrease of 20%. In 2020, the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China issued a document requiring that at least one-third of the representative works of researchers engaged in basic research should be published in Chinese journals, which suddenly provided an impetus for researchers from top universities to return to the domestic journal competition. Master’s degree holders are expected to know how to write manuscripts for publication in Chinese journals, but Chinese journals are becoming too exclusive, thus unreachable for them.

Figure 10. Xingtai University hired 13 PhD graduates from Korea in 2021.

Meanwhile, there are many faculty in community colleges and polytechnics who did not have a doctorate at the time they obtained their positions, but now the institution wants them to have one. This spreadsheet contains dozens of corresponding authors affiliated with universities in other countries, but with Han Chinese names and even using the email addresses of Chinese institutions. This may be because the author’s affiliation with foreign university was a lie, or it may be that the author was sponsored by an institution in China to pursue a PhD at that university. In this summer, it was reported on social media that two colleges in China were offering grants to junior faculty members who went overseas for PhDs at lower-ranking universities and rehired them to better positions after their return. These PhD students belong to the same community as their colleagues at their original institution but are under greater pressure to publish, which prompts them to buy services from the publisher’s local partners.

The full-service paper mill and its Chinese customers

An investigation by Elisabeth Bik, Smut Clyde, Morty and Tiger BB8 reveals the workings of a paper mill. Its customers are Chinese doctors desperate for promotion. Apparently even journal editors are part of the scam, publishing fraudulent made-up science.

An active user in the paper writing and submission section of the Dxy forum, WOrange, was following the impact of the announcement of Hindawi’s plan of massive retractions. He mentioned in a series of postings what many people who submitted manuscripts to special issues of Hindawi journals revealed to him:

“In fact, these screenings can effectively find the manuscripts from low-class paper mills, because they are producing a huge number of crude manuscripts. There are various classes of paper mills, some of which work meticulously and have little chance of getting into trouble; but some are impatient and make repeat invitations to specific reviewers, making things fall through. Generally, these impatient paper mills … are trying to make a quick buck. Even if special issues of JHE (Journal of Healthcare Engineering) were frozen indiscriminately, they can work with other journals. This is a typical business strategy: make a quick buck and walk away, then move on to the next windfall! … According to comments and private chats, some guest editors continue to scam authors into submitting manuscripts and charging high fees even after the special issue has been frozen. When the authors found out that and asked for a refund, the guest editor refused to return the bribe.

I would like to point out that there is no evidence as to whether any of the authors paid bribes directly to the guest editors. Worryingly, his words seem to imply that manipulation of the publishing process is generally seen as acceptable for special issues, provided the paper mills and guest editors enter long-term business agreements with their customers’ interests in mind. I know many Chinese researchers who hold such views.

It is a terrible predicament. However, Taiwan’s experience tells us that the truth needs to be made known before a perfect solution can be sought. As Ian and Jamie Rowen wrote in 2017, how and when transitional justice is approached and upheld will affect a country’s stance toward its dark history and even re-make its democracy. And how and when transitional justice is approached and upheld will affect a research community’s stance toward its dark history, too, and even re-make its spirit. Why do people who are not engaged in research need to publish for promotion? Why is it increasingly difficult to publish in Chinese language in Chinese journals? Who are these local partners and what role do they play in influence peddling in China? How exactly do paper mills operate? How much junk and pseudoscience are they dumping into academia? Chinese researchers need truth and reconciliation to end the hostility among Chinese researchers and between Chinese researchers and the world. And I hope, this can start with thousands of retractions, published by Hindawi.

2 comments on “Papermill – your local partner for Special Issues in China

  1. Parashorea tomentella

    While Hindawi is investigating the manipulation of the publication process in their special issues (, it is surprising to see that publishing continues in Nov 2022 (e.g. 10.1155/2022/1034535, 10.1155/2022/2037904, 10.1155/2022/3177201, 10.1155/2022/3450672, 10.1155/2022/4807175, 10.1155/2022/2968122, 10.1155/2022/9377334).


  2. Pingback: The papermills of my mind – For Better Science

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