Today, Science reported that a fake article that “[a]ny reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted” had been placed in 61 percent of the 304 open-access journals it had been submitted to.
The paper was authored by John Bohannan, who has a PhD in molecular biology from Oxford, under an assumed name, “Ocorrafoo Cobange,” who claimed to be a biologist at “the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara.” Neither Cobange nor the institute purporting to employ him exist; however, despite the forged credentials and grossly problematic content, the majority of journals to which Bohannan submitted the paper accepted it.
Though Bohannan was encouraged that 20 percent of the journals to which he submitted his obviously flawed paper rejected it outright, he was much more concerned with the gate-keeping — or lack thereof — that guided the publications that eventually accepted his paper.
Some asked for no revision; others, superficial revisions for style and format; but most worrying were those, like the Journal for International Medical Research, which accepted his paper and asked for $3,100 to publish his “findings.” Links to all the papers and the correspondence relating to them can be found here.
The potential damage to the public from what Jeffrey Beall calls “predatory publishers” can be far-reaching. Academic articles, even in the sciences, are cited by legal professionals in order to determine matters of law. They form the basis for government grants, which directly effects which lines of research are funded. Moreover, they are used by corporations as material evidence in the implementation of drug trials.
If used wrongly, a paper as patently false as Bohannan’s — which claimed that a cell-killing “drug” could not only cure cancer, but was so effective it should bypass human trials — could lead to the death of hundreds of the most desperate and vulnerable patients.
Many online journals are ready to publish bad research in exchange for a credit card number.
That’s the conclusion of an elaborate sting carried out by Science, a leading mainline journal. The result should trouble doctors, patients, policymakers and anyone who has a stake in the integrity of science (and who doesn’t?).
The business model of these “predatory publishers” is a scientific version of those phishes from Nigerians who want help transferring a few million dollars into your bank account.
To find out just how common predatory publishing is, Science contributor John Bohannon sent a deliberately faked research article 305 times to online journals. More than half the journals that supposedly reviewed the fake paper accepted it.
“This sting operation,” Bohannan writes, reveals “the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”
Online scientific journals are springing up at a great rate. There are thousands out there. Many, such as PLoS One, are totally respectable. This “open access” model is making good science more accessible than ever before, without making users pay the hefty subscription fees of traditional print journals.
(It should be noted that Science is among these legacy print journals, charging subscription fees and putting much of its online content behind a pay wall.)
Another problem happens down the line when real news organizations report something because it was published without fully vetting the reputability of the publisher. Then people tell their friends and post the information on social media and on blogs. It is boring and tedious to check facts and it is easy to make up some scientific sounding baloney. Deception is one of the biggest problems keeping the web from evolving to the useful and intelligent natural language stage.
“Siri, tell me about Martians.”
“Okay. Here’s what I found on the Web. Martians invaded the earth on Sunday August 30, 2006.”