Preying on Academics

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Seeking to test whether “predatory” journals would publish an obviously absurd paper, the science blogger Neuroskeptic wrote a Star Wars-themed spoof. His paper was about “midi-chlorians,” which in the Star Wars universe are entities that live inside cells and give the Jedi their powers. He filled the paper with other references to the “galaxy far, far away,” and submitted it to nine journals under the names of Dr. Lucas McGeorge and Dr. Annette Kim. Three journals accepted and published the spoofed article; another offered to publish it for a fee of $360.

Within six days of Neuroskeptic publishing his blog article describing what he did, “Predatory Journals Hit By ‘Star Wars’ Sting,” all three journals had deleted his online journal article. To generate the main text of the paper, he copied the Wikipedia page on “mitochondrion,” which actually do exist, and replaced all references in it with the Star Wars term “midichlorians.” He even admitted how he had reworded the text in the Methods section of his spoofed paper, saying: The majority of the text in the current paper was Rogeted from Wikipedia.” Oh, and “Dr. Lucas McGeorge” was sent an unsolicited invitation to serve on the editorial board of one of the journals. Some of clues within his article indicating it was a spoof included the following:

“Beyond supplying cellular energy, midichloria perform functions such as Force sensitivity…”“Involved in ATP production is the citric acid cycle, also referred to as the Kyloren cycle after its discoverer”“Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside in all living cells – without the midi-chlorians, life couldn’t exist, and we’d have no knowledge of the force. Midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism.”

Neuroskeptic said his sting doesn’t prove that scientific publishing is hopelessly broken, but it does provide a reminder that at some so-called peer reviewed journals, there is not any “meaningful peer review.” This was an already known problem, but his sting illustrates the importance of peer review, which “is supposed to justify the price of publishing.” If you’re interested in reading the spoofed paper, there is a link in his blog article.

This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review. True, they also publish papers (electronically in the case of these journals), but if you just wanted to publish something electronically, you could do that yourself for free.

Neuroskeptic referred to another article found in the New York Times that was also about a “sting” operation on predatory journals. Here, a fictitious author, Anna O. Szust (Oszust is the Polish word for ‘a fraud’), applied to 360 randomly selected open-access journals asking to be an editor. Forty-eight accepted her and four made he editor in chief. She received two offers to start new journals and be the editor. The publications in her CV were fake, as were her degrees. “The book chapters she listed among her publications could not be found, but perhaps that should not have been a surprise because the book publishers were fake, too.”

Dr. Fraud received some tempting offers. She was invited to organize a conference, whose papers would be published. She would get 40% of the proceeds. Another journal invited her to start a new journal and offered her 30% of the profits. The investigators who conceived this sting operation told the journals that accepted Dr. Fraud that she wanted to withdraw her application to be an editor. “Dr. Fraud remains listed as a member of the editorial boards of at least 11 of those journals.”

Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues wrote about their sting operation in the journal Nature: “Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor.” Pisanski et al. said they became increasingly disturbed at the number of invitations they received to become editors or to review journals that were outside of their field. They learned some colleagues, mainly early-career researchers, were unaware of these predatory practices and had fallen for these traps.

So, in 2015, we created a profile of a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust and applied on her behalf to the editorial boards of 360 journals. Oszust is the Polish word for ‘a fraud’. We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included, among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences. We also created accounts for Szust on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter, and made a faculty webpage at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The page could be accessed only through a link we provided on her CV.

The aim of their study was to help academics understand how bogus versus legitimate journals operate—not trick the journals into accepting them as an editor. So if journals did not respond to her application, they did not email them again. “In many cases, we received a positive response within days of application, and often within hours.” They coded journals as “Accepted” only when a reply to their email explicitly accepted Szust as an editor or if Szust’s name appeared as an editorial board member on the journal’s website.

The laudable goal of open-access publishing gave birth to these predatory journals. Traditional academic journals raise support by subscription fees, while authors pay nothing. “Open-access journals reverse that model. The authors pay and the published papers are free to anyone who cares to read them.” For example, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) journals (which are credible open-access journals), charges between $1,495 and $2,900 to publish a paper. Predatory journals exist by publishing just about anything sent to them for a fee, often between $100 and $400, according to Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado.

Beall does not believe that everyone who publishes in these predatory journals is duped. He thinks many researchers know exactly what they are doing when they publish an article there. “I believe there are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they got.” So it now requires some due diligence on the part of academic employers to ferret out those questionable publications.

In “Science is Broken,” Siddhartha Roy and Marc Edwards, noted how over the past fifty years, “the incentives and reward structure of science have changed, creating a hypercompetition among academic researchers.” Universities are now using part time and adjunct faculty for up to 76% of their academic labor force. This makes tenure-track positions rarer and more desirable, as universities operate more like businesses. This academic business model has also led to an increased reliance on quantitative performance metrics “that value numbers of papers, citations and research dollars raised has decreased the emphasis on socially relevant outcomes and quality.”

There is growing concern that these pressures may encourage unethical conduct by some scientists. It certainly has contributed to the replication problem with published studies. See “Reproducibility in Science” for more on the replication problem. Roy and Edwards said: “We believe that reform is needed to bring balance back to the academy and to the social contract between science and society, to ensure the future role of science as a public good.” Predatory journals have entered into this changing structure of the academic business model, seeing the opportunity to take advantage of the “publish or perish” pressure on academics to secure jobs, promotions and gain tenure. The result has been an undermining of the university system and the practice of science as a public good.