July 14, 2014

What’s juicier, soccer match-fixing rings or scholarly peer review rings?


The original facepalm, in the Tuileries Garden, Paris. Image via Wikipedia.

The original facepalm, in the Tuileries Garden, Paris. Image via Wikipedia.

In the wake of the New York Times’ two-part report by Declan Hill and Jeré Longman on match-fixing in soccer and last week’s news, announced on the blog Retraction Watch, about 60 articles being retracted by the publishers of the Journal of Vibration and Control because the peer review process they’d undergone was found to be fundamentally flawed, awash in stolen identities and dead-end email addresses, it feels like the right time to ask: what’s juicier, more full of drama and skulduggery, soccer match-fixing rings or scholarly peer review rings?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be obvious: as the Times piece revealed, soccer match-fixing extends from bribing a few refs all the way to setting up entirely fraudulent tournaments for the benefit of the Asian betting market. Fantastically large sums are involved. A few ambiguously vetted papers in an obscure journal hardly sounds like “Ocean’s Eleven” material compared to this.

And yet, the case can be made that what went down at SAGE Publishers last week is just as exciting. (Or almost just as exciting. Not going to lie to you. It’s hard to beat that photo of the totally empty stands behind the players at the fake tournament in Antalya, Turkey, in 2011.) Here’s how the two rings stack up against each other in some key areas.

1. Pathologically Brazen Evil-doer: Wilson Raj Perumal vs. Chen-Yuan Chen

Wilson Raj Perumal is a match fixer who rigged games for a Singapore-based syndicate until he was arrested in Finland in 2011, at which point he confessed and wrote a memoir, Kelong Kings; Chen-Yuan Chen (who also goes by Peter) is the researcher at the National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan who has been accused of masterminding the peer review ring that led to the publication of the now-retracted articles.

And while Perumal’s match-fixing is impressively chronic — in Finland, he was found fixing matches by local teams in a small city — Chen appears to have the upper hand in terms of sheer dramatic impact at the moment. While he was in operation (it’s believed that other people were involved, though that hasn’t been confirmed), he used numerous aliases to review his own work and other scholars’ work, leading ultimately to one of the largest retractions in recent academic history.

Moreover, no one knows where he is. No vainglorious memoirs for this guy, no moody mugshot, no cooperation with the authorities. Chen resigned from NPUE in February, and that’s the last that’s been heard of him. He’s gone dark.

2. Creative Use Of Inherently Suspect Forms of Correspondence

The first part of the Times story details the attempt by the syndicate to infiltrate the South African soccer federation, starting with a business letter from the cover company for the syndicate, Football 4 U , offering to provide referees for matches. This letter is an excellent example of how the business letter format lends itself easily to, or at least contains without protest, offers to carry out clearly illegal activities. There is something rotten at the core of the business letter.

But possibly not as rotten as the random Gmail account, which Chen manipulated to great effect, setting up accounts for both actual and invented scholars at real institutions and then submitting reviews from those accounts. In the ongoing investigation of the ring, a spokesman for SAGE, Daniel Sherman, told Fred Barbash at the Washington Post that 130 names and accounts were contacted for verification, and none had so far responded. Meaning that Chen and his accomplices were inventing Gmail addresses left and right, and no one questioned them. Were they even plausible-sounding addresses? What is a plausible-sounding Gmail address for a vibration and control academic, anyway? [email protected]? No one knows. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

3. Gullibility of People Who Should Know Better

On this front, the JVC case clearly comes out ahead (or behind?). Because while the Times articles describe a lot of outright venality, they also have heroes, like Steve Goddard of the South African Football Association, who smelled a rat in the Football 4 U offer and went so far as to lock a referee that he correctly suspected was on the take in a dressing room during a match to prevent him from determining the course of the game.

Nobody got locked in a dressing room in the JVC affair, and you have to wonder why not. There was plenty that was reasonably suspicious in the peer review process, as Barbash points out. Some reviewers had no institutional affiliation listed, just their country. Some reviews were written in less than two minutes and were obviously cut and paste jobs.

So while the administration of the JVC, among them the former editor-in-chief, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh, seem to have taken all the right steps once doubts about the papers and their review process began to be raised, it’s pretty disturbing that they didn’t pick up on the problems earlier. Some of the papers were published three years before the investigations began in 2013. Three years! Why, in three years’ time, Mario Götze will almost be able to legally buy a beer.

4. Involvement of Robots

Way, way more robots in the Journal of Vibration and Control papers. Look at this title of one of the retracted papers: “An enhanced obstacle avoidance and path correction mechanism for an autonomous intelligent robot with multiple sensors.” Or this one: “The development of autonomous low-cost biped mobile surveillance robot by intelligent bricks.” Or this: “Autonomous navigation system for radiofrequency identification mobile robot e-book reader.” The future of e-books, not to mention the future of the human race, is clearly in the hands of the JVC, and those hands have proved themselves none too steady. Now the day the Singaporean match-fixing syndicate figures out how to sub in robot soccer players, then I’ll be terrified.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.