Hoax Shows Limits of Scientific Journals

Science is far from perfect

By William M Briggs Published on July 31, 2017

Neuroskeptic, a blogger for Discover magazine, submitted a nonsense paper to several journals, some of which accepted and even published it.

The paper was laced with plagiarized quotes from Wikipedia, absurd medical jargon, and fanciful elements from Star Wars. It was submitted under the name “Lucas McGeorge.” This “McGeorge” wrote of “‘midi-chlorians’ — the fictional entities that live inside cells and give Jedi their powers.” The paper was filled with “references to the galaxy far, far away,” a galaxy which enjoys the disease “Lightsaber’s hereditary optic neuropathy.”

These journals all have class-A, super-science-sounding names.

Predators and Prey

Academic know all about these “predatory” journals. Two or three times a week I receive invitations to either submit to some new journal, and even to nominate myself to its editorial board. The Neuroskeptic said he was asked to be an editor for one of the journals he spoofed.

Anybody who can code a web page can set one up. They will publish (online) nearly any paper for a not-unsubstantial fee. This earns the writer a publishing credit, essential for every academic. If you’re lucky, and most are, your hiring-, tenure- or promotion-review committee won’t notice the shady source of your references.

I also receive dubious invitations to conferences, usually in India or China. Most are obvious money grabs. Some are outright frauds. Dicey conferences exist for the same reason as predatory journals: Academics get credit for speaking, too.

Publish or Perish

How and why do these journals exist? Because they fill a real need, created by the ever greater demand that academics publish — or else perish. Their primary benefit is speed. You can submit and have a decision, and thus another reference to add to your CV, within days or even hours.

There’s no surer path to a rewarding academic career than to rake in grants. But paper count counts. Every Dean, Department Chair, and prominent researcher will publicly deny it. They’ll trumpet the line “Quality counts over quantity.” But in private and in practice all assume that you have to have papers, and that within certain limits, more is better.

Real journals, those that have some sort of genuine peer review, are plentiful. And every academic knows you can always find one to publish your paper, even bad papers. But it takes time. And lots of it. I once had a paper in review for three years. This was long, but not unheard of. Many prominent journals take at least months, and a year to eighteen months between submission and publication is common.

Don’t miss the point. No matter how execrable a paper is, a genuine peer-reviewed journal for it can be found. A paper finding its way into print at a top-tier journal is no guarantee of quality. I have spent years on my blog reviewing rotten research, all of which has passed peer-reviewed and appeared in (so-called) credible journals.

Bad Science and Good Science

Just because a paper appears in a predatory journal doesn’t mean the paper is wrong. Value and scientific correctness are two different things. And just because a paper appears in a high-ranking journal doesn’t mean it was submitted with honest intent. Fraud, malfeasance, and stupidity in legitimate journals is growing by leaps and bounds. Retraction Watch, a treasure trove of exposés of scientific silliness, documents the problems daily.

The number of predatory journals is not large, and legitimate outlets abound. Their numbers swell like a bad idea. When I was starting out as strapping young scientist in the mid-1990s, there were maybe five or six titles in my little subarea. There are now hundreds, with no signs of slowing.

Even the best journals can’t keep up with the burgeoning number of publishing academics, well funded by governments everywhere. Nobody can keep up. The publish-or-perish dictum, the growing numbers of academics and institutions, and the ever greater monies flowing into the system ensure the average quality of research declines and the possibility for fraud increases. Peer review, too, more beloved by the public than academics, enforces mediocrity.

There has been a reaction to the system. Some scientists have returned to the old way of communicating directly with colleagues. The most prominent venture is arXiv.org, a home where scientists can post articles with almost no oversight. And a place where anybody can read papers without having to subscribe to costly journals.

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