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by Amy King and Carrie Smedstad

For Peer Review Week, KGL interviewed journal editors and publishing experts on the state of peer review in 2023. In this insightful Q&A blog, we share the full interview conducted with Zara Manwaring, Managing Editor at Portland Press, which is the publishing arm of the Biochemical Society. We sat down with Zara to discuss the challenges posed by paper mills on the peer review processes and how the journal, Bioscience Reports, responded to these issues.

CS: What prompted Bioscience Reports to take action regarding paper mills, and how did it affect the peer review process?

ZM: We decided to address paper mills because of Bioscience Reports’ experience with a sudden influx of submissions around April of 2020. This surge caused operational challenges in terms of processing papers and peer reviews. As a journal committed to considering all papers, regardless of perceived quality, we couldn’t simply turn away submissions without a fair and equitable process in place. This put significant stress on our associate editors and peer reviewers, resulting in a backlog of submissions.

CS: Were there specific signs or pain points that editors and reviewers noticed when dealing with paper mill submissions?

ZM: There were several noticeable signs. Firstly, we observed that reviewers were increasingly difficult to find for certain submissions. Reviewers mentioned being overwhelmed by the volume of manuscripts, and some declined because they had recently reviewed similar papers. There was also concern about the striking similarity in methodologies and figure layouts across multiple submissions. The more prolific editors had started noticing similarity in the methodologies of a lot of these papers and the comments and remarks were made that it looked like they are copying the same format and layout as many other previous articles. The editors who are only handling one or two papers and wouldn’t necessarily notice that pattern because they hadn’t seen enough papers come through.

There was a particular pattern and that particular style of article and we had already had discussions with our editorial board about why they felt we should be rejecting those. It felt like this “minimal publishing unit.” That’s a phrase that I’ve heard quite a lot from different publishers where they’re receiving brief submissions that just about tick all of the requirements to get published. But there’s no in-depth analysis within that research paper. It was amazing how much time we were spending processing these papers over and over and over again that ultimately didn’t need to be acknowledged at all.

CS: How did the editorial team and reviewers react to these challenges?

ZM: Our editorial board members, who handled many papers, were the first to identify these patterns. Their comments helped us identify potential paper mill submissions. A lot of our concerns were about the validity of the data that we were receiving from our authors because we were so often seeing duplicated images and how do you determine what’s inappropriate duplication and what’s not, or whether something’s accidental or whether it’s deliberate. We  began requesting raw data from authors, especially for Western blots, where we frequently suspected manipulation. Peer reviewers were encouraged to examine this data closely and provide constructive feedback. This approach made peer review more robust and helped identify issues early.

CS: How did Bioscience Reports manage to streamline its peer review process and reduce the burden of paper mill submissions?

ZM: To address this issue, we significantly improved the efficiency of our peer review process. By removing paper mill submissions early in the process, we reduced the burden on our editors and reviewers. We also encouraged peer reviewers to focus on the provided data and ask specific questions in the peer reviewer form related to it. As a result, we reduced our editorial timelines by about 70%, making the entire process smoother.

CS: How has this experience affected the authors and the perception of Bioscience Reports within the academic community?

ZM: Authors appreciate the rigorous approach to peer review and journal integrity. Bioscience Reports’ commitment to transparency is important to uphold as part of the academic community. This experience has shown that journals must be vigilant and proactive in maintaining research integrity, especially in the era of open access and evolving publishing practices.

CS: In closing, what advice would you offer to other journals facing similar challenges with paper mills?

ZM: It’s crucial for journals to be proactive and transparent in addressing issues related to paper mills. Encourage editors and reviewers to closely examine data, provide constructive feedback, and actively engage in identifying potential paper mill submissions. Learning from our experiences, journals can maintain research integrity and protect their reputation within the academic community.

Zara Manwaring is the Managing Editor of Bioscience Reports and has been at Portland Press since 2019. In the Managing Editor role, Zara has overseen the improvement and implementation of new workflows and policies to increase the quality of, and confidence in, submitted and published articles.

Carrie Smedstad is Senior Managing Editor at KGL Editorial, providing leadership and management in partnership with clients. During her decade in scholarly publishing, Carrie has optimized workflows for both high-volume tasks and for a variety of specialty manuscript types.

Amy King is Senior Managing Editor at KGL Editorial where she provides oversight of several client journals, working closely with editors, publishers, and editorial associates. She has nearly 15 years of experience in scholarly publishing. The KGL team can be reached at

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