Welcome to the world of science scams, a fast-growing business that sucks money out of research and undermines genuine scientific knowledge
OTTAWA — I have just written the world’s worst science research paper: More than incompetent, it’s a mess of plagiarism and meaningless garble.
Now science publishers around the world are clamouring to publish it.
They will distribute it globally and pretend it is real research, for a fee.
It’s untrue? And parts are plagiarized? They’re fine with that.
Welcome to the world of science scams, a fast-growing business that sucks money out of research, undermines genuine scientific knowledge, and provides fake credentials for the desperate.
And even veteran scientists and universities are unaware of how deep the problem runs.
When scientists make discoveries, they publish their results in academic journals. The journals review the discovery with independent experts, and if everything checks out they publish the work. This boosts the reputations, and the job prospects, of the study’s authors.
Many journals now publish only online. And some of these, nicknamed predatory journals, offer fast, cut-rate service to young researchers under pressure to publish who have trouble getting accepted by the big science journals.
In academia, there’s a debate over whether the predators are of a lower-than-desired quality. But Postmedia News’ experiment indicates much more: that many are pure con artists on the same level as the Nigerian banker who wants to give you $100-million.
Last year, science writer John Bohannon sent out a paper with subtle scientific errors and showed that predatory journals were often failing to catch them. Postmedia News covered his sting, published in Science magazine.
Estimates of their numbers range from hundreds to thousands.
To uncover bottom-feeding publishers, the simplest way was to submit something that absolutely shouldn’t be published by anyone, anywhere.
First I had to write it.
My short research paper may look normal to outsiders: A lot of big, scientific words with some graphs. Let’s start with the title: “Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.”
Look more closely. The first half is about soil science. Then halfway through it switches to medical terms, myeloablation and PBSC infusion, which relate to treatment of cancer using stem cells.
The reason: I copied and pasted one phrase from a geology paper online, and the rest from a medical one, on hematology.
I wrote the whole paper that way, copying and pasting from soil, then blood, then soil again, and so on. There are a couple of graphs from a paper about Mars. They had squiggly lines and looked cool, so I threw them in.
Footnotes came largely from a paper on wine chemistry. The finished product is completely meaningless.
The university where I claim to work doesn’t exist. Nor do the Nepean Desert or my co-author. Software that catches plagiarism identified 67% of my paper as stolen (and that’s missing some). And geology and blood work don’t mix, even with my invention of seismic platelets.
I submitted the faux science to 18 journals, and waited.
Predators moved in fast. Acceptances started rolling in within 24 hours of my submission, from journals wishing to publish the work of this young geologist at the University of Ottawa-Carleton
Predators moved in fast. Acceptances started rolling in within 24 hours of my submission, from journals wishing to publish the work of this young geologist at the University of Ottawa-Carleton.
First came the Merit Research Journal of Agricultural Science and Soil Sciences, which claims it sent me to “peer review” by an independent expert in the field who gave me a glowing review. It laid out my article and was ready to post it online 48 hours after submission — for $500.
That’s cheap. The going rate at genuine journals is $1,000 to $5,000.
I didn’t pay.
There are seven more acceptances from the International Journal of Science and Technology, Science Journal of Agricultural Research and Management, the International Journal of Current Research, Science Park, Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Research (actually based in Jordan), American Journal of Scientific Research, and International Journal of Latest Research in Engineering and Computing. Yes, “Latest.” Makes you wonder what other kind there is.
Several others are still considering and a couple are silent and appear to have shut down.
Only two turned me down, for plagiarism. And one of these will turn a blind eye and publish anyway if I just tweak it a bit.
The acceptances came embarrassingly fast. A real journal needs weeks at the very least to ask reviewers — outside experts — to check an author’s work.
I wrote back to one of these publishers explaining that my work was “bilge” and the conclusions don’t stand up.
The journal wrote right back offering to tweak a few passages and publish anyway. And by the way, it asked, where’s the $500?
At the University of Saskatchewan, medical professor Roger Pierson wonders how can scientists trust the journal system to share knowledge.
“Basically you can’t any more,” he said, except for a stable of well-known journals from identifiable professional societies, where members recognize ethical work is in all their best interests.
He had just spent time with the committee that oversees tenure and promotions at his university.
“We had three cases where people had published things in what were obviously predatory journals, and they didn’t think anything was wrong with that.
“The reality though is that these [fake journals] are used for promotion and tenure by people who really shouldn’t be there. The world is changing fast…. It’s a big problem.”
He tracked a paper from one job applicant to the journal website and found the giveaway clue: It takes weeks to publish, the site said, but if authors needs faster service to impress their universities then “it costs another $500 and they’ll publish it in days.
“It’s got absurd. There are hundreds if not thousands” of shady publishers, Pierson said.
“Universities are particularly vulnerable” to being fooled by these fake credentials.
It used to be pretty easy to spot them, said Pierson. “But the predatory journals are becoming a little more sophisticated, [and] new journals in every field are popping up weekly.”
Even Pierson didn’t know the latest trick. Journals are rated on their “impact factor” — how often their articles are used as references in later studies. And the predatory journals are now buying fake impact factors from equally fake rating agencies.
He believes this taints the reliability of what is published everywhere.
“Scientists are wasting way too much time filtering through crap to find a good article. Instead of having 60 or 70 that are of good quality, suddenly you’ve got 200, and you’ve got to be the judge.”
Scientists are wasting way too much time filtering through crap to find a good article. Instead of having 60 or 70 that are of good quality, suddenly you’ve got 200, and you’ve got to be the judge
Young researchers are squeezed into dealing with shady journals by a near-monopoly of a very few established publishing houses, says Mark McDayter of Western University. The established journals have sky-high fees, while the “open access” journals (i.e. those free online) “are the Wild West” of publishing.
Some are of top quality, such as PLOS (Public Library of Science.) But it’s hard to tell which are good.
“It’s in some danger of wiping out an entire generation of scholars who simply can’t make it because they can’t find legitimate venues for publication.”
Even the universities don’t realize how bad it has become, McDayter believes.
As well, he says academics write such dense jargon in such specialized fields that almost no one can understand them. This makes their research hard to evaluate.
“The other problem is that scholarly writing is just dreadful and has become more and more dreadful over the past 10 years or so,” he points out.
McDayter says posting free online for all to read is pointless “if it’s complete and absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have a PhD in your field.”
David Moher of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a grad student are studying predatory publishing. They have a list of 380 dubious publishers, but Moher confesses it’s often hard to know who belongs on the list.
Most scientists are spammed with regular emails fishing for contributions in such journals, he said. He gets them from medical-sounding sites, but he also gets them from areas he where he has no expertise, such as physics.
Even reporters have started getting these spam messages. So have Ottawa city councillors, and a roller hockey league.
But Moher also suggests that people may treat the traditional system of peer review with too much respect.
It’s still possible that the predators are publishing decent work, even without peer review, he said.
It’s still possible that the predators are publishing decent work, even without peer review, he said. “What you have pointed out [with the bogus article on soils] is quite flawed and problematic. But I’ll be devil’s advocate for a moment. Set that aside…. We do not have any strong evidence anywhere that peer review works.
“I’m an editor and many editors don’t like to hear that…. But it may not in the end make any difference.”
The bigger problem is that in this case the publisher clearly didn’t even read what it offered to print, not even the title, “and that’s hugely problematic.”
In Saskatchewan, Roger Pierson asks: “How do we begin to teach students about ethics in science versus the needs of career advancement? It’s going to be an interesting time.”
There’s been one more development in my own story. The Science Publishing Group (it lists its address simply as “USA”) has asked me to apply for a post on its editorial board, which would put me in charge of judging others’ work. The future looks bright indeed.
* * *
Pierson’s ideas on beating the predators:
- “You don’t just count publications (to evaluate a young researcher). A bunch of us crusty old guys will actually read them. It’s sad for an old career person to say this has become a game but I think that’s the reality.”
- Stick with the established publishers such as Science, Nature, and Cell, even though their costs are high.
- Researchers might only take on students who have previously studied under a colleague they know and trust.