Science Fact: Science Magazine conducted a journal sting operation and exposed many international publications as money-grabbing operations with no scientific credentials at all.
Publications are critical to researchers in many ways: they determine job security and promotion at many universities. They affect whether a faculty member can win a contract to pay for research. They affect your reputation among your peers. And they are part of the dialogue between research groups that may otherwise be working far, far away in isolation from other specialists.
There are thousands of internet-only scientific journals competing to publish research papers. Unfortunately, because there are legitimate online journals, many scam artists have also jumped into the business. And as professionals, how can we be happy about the hijacking of honest research?
What’s fascinating to me is that Science, the respected weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, stepped out of its normal role of publishing research results and science news, and into investigative journalism.
The journalist, John Bohannon, created a spoof research report about the miraculous effects of a chemical extract from lichen in suppressing cancer. The paper was loaded with flaws — figures whose captions contradicted what the figure showed, obvious mistakes in experimental technique, and recommendations for human testing that violated scientific ethics.
Of course, he couldn’t submit exactly the same paper to all these journals, because many of them have common ownership and they would spot the trap. So he varied the name of the chemical extract, the species of lichen, and the type of cancer cells tested. Then he created hundreds of fictitious researchers and research institutions who supposedly wrote these different but basically identical papers, and submitted them to 304 online journals for publication.
The journals themselves are a strange group. Many of them have American or European in their names but have nothing to do with the places where they are supposedly located. For example, the American Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences is based in Pakistan, and as many as one-third of the total list are based in India.
All the journals list impressive advisory boards and promise that submitted articles receive review by experts in the field — “peer review.” Honest professional reviews should help authors be happy about the journals where they publish. However, peer reviews are evidently not carried out, because more than half the journals accepted the flawed papers for publication.
Then comes the payoff: these journals charge the author to publish the paper. This is not a printed journal, mind you, it’s basically a blog site that charges struggling researchers hundreds or often thousands of dollars to publish their work. It’s the easy money that has lured the scammers into this business.
The minority of legitimate scientific publishers are swamped by illegitimate competitors using names that imitate established journals. This great piece of journalism, which makes entertaining reading if you have the chance, is an important step forward in setting standards and bringing honesty to a shady corner of the scientific research business.
Science Speculation: As scientists, we are idealists, holding high standards for legitimate scientific research. It comes as a terrible shock to find out that our profession is stained by opportunists and scammers, and that we can’t always trust the integrity of what we read in research reports. This is not an isolated instance of a foreign researcher falsifying his results; this is wholesale, systematic fraud.
Alas, “let the buyer beware” seems to apply in the research business just as it does in so many other areas of life.
Does the journal sting strike a familiar note to you? Have you been taken in by a plausible report that turned out to be false?
Science, 4 October 2013, pp. 60-65, Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?
Science Podcast transcript, 4 October 2013
Drawing Credit: Sarah Owens on openclipart.org
This isn’t the most egregious case of nonsense being accepted for publication. There have been several incidents of computer generated papers being accepted to journals. For example:
Thanks for this Art. Very illuminating.
If this is what you find in the sciences, imagine what one will find in the humanities and social sciences!