The publishing giant Elsevier is withdrawing around 500 fake conference papers from one of its materials science journals, Retraction Watch reports. Many of the manuscripts published in Materials Today: Proceedings are off-topic, incomprehensible to the point of nonsense or seem to have been written by software. They all seem to have come from conferences that never happened, possibly created by paper mills as a way to ‘launder’ publications.

The problem was highlighted by James Heathers in late September, who found at least 1500 potentially fake articles in Materials Today: Proceedings. Some proceedings even had titles that had been advertised for sale to researchers looking for quick and easy authorship on a peer-reviewed article.

Conference proceedings, explained Heathers, are particularly vulnerable to paper mills because it isn’t the individual authors that submit the articles but the conference organisers. They decide on a topic, submit the papers and select guest editors who handle quality control and peer review externally to the journal. Heathers suggested that predatory conferences don’t exist to scam researchers out of the money they pay to attend, but to provide cover for proceedings submissions. ‘I think we need to appreciate just how well a journal which publishes conference proceedings wholesale and without scrutiny allows a perfect sweet spot to launder fake papers,’ Heathers wrote.

Many of the Materials Today: Proceedings papers seem to have nothing to do with materials science – such as an analysis of social media. Heathers recounted that many abstracts had the hallmarks of having been written by translation or paraphrasing software.

In the withdrawal notice, Elsevier writes that the papers’ ‘peer-review process was confirmed to fall beneath the high standards expected by Materials Today: Proceedings. The veracity of the conference also remains subject to serious doubt and therefore the entire Proceedings has been withdrawn in order to correct the scholarly record.’

Elsevier told Retraction Watch that they had already begun investigating the journal in 2021. They added that the journal was planning major changes to the structure and editorial process to avoid having to rely on conference organisers’ integrity.