“Predator and pay” (Fraudulent peer- reviewed journals)


One aspect of this blog I am most proud of is that readers will find me sometimes writing about weaknesses of things I believe in. Try finding some pro-vax points on Natural News or a post about the shortcomings of biblical literalism at Answers in Genesis.

I strongly believe in peer review, but the process is not without its flaws. Those involved are human and therefore subject to bias and error. Besides these deficiencies, there is also fraud. For example, some authors have been busted creating fictitious persons to praise their work and including these testimonials with their peer review packet.

There is also a significant problem of journals that exist not to further science and research, but to sustain themselves by collecting payment from authors. Rather than seeking to ensure transparency and playing a crucial role in doing sound science, these journals exist only for ill-gained profit, and they do damage to the scientific process. That’s because Answers in Genesis and Natural News can accurately point out that some publications calling themselves “peer-reviewed” in actuality print unedited submissions, including some that are strings of computer-generated gibberish. These organizations can then use this to assert that peer review is an unnecessary step in getting to the truth.

Bogus journals adopt names that sound scholarly and they sometimes imitate legitimate publications by using a similar name to an existing journal. It is akin diploma mills calling themselves Columbia State or Monticello and adopting the .edu suffix in their URL.

Rebecca Schuman at Slate reports that “an entire cottage industry” has arisen, consisting of “peer-review fraud syndicates, journals that nobody proofreads, academic book mills, and pay-to-play conferences where everyone is accepted and whose proceedings are then stapled together in a glorified pamphlet” that is counted as a publication.

The journal Nature launched a sting in which it submitted a counterfeit application to 360 journals for an editor position. For the operation, Nature created a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust. By design, her experience and education were horribly inadequate for an editor’s role. Despite this, she received 48 job offers, many of them coming in less than a day. Moreover, these were often contingent on a payment, such as one that wanted Szust to pay the journal’s annual subscription fee of $750.

Similarly, some journals granted Szust conditional acceptance if she submitted her papers for a price. In some cases, these paid submissions could be submitted by Szust’s associates, with her and the journal dividing the submission fee. Most of these journals were more interested in Szust functioning as a recruiter for paid submissions than they were in having her assess a manuscript’s quality.  

Nature reported that there have been more than half a million papers published in predatory journals, so how can we know if a publication is legitimate? While it would be nice to think that there is a list of such journals, Brian Dunning at Skeptoid cautioned that this can never be.

“There is no such thing as an authoritative list of reputable scientific journals. There can’t be,” he wrote. “And the reason is that word ‘authoritative.’ Who is qualified to be the authority? No one is. No one must be. The moment that any one group is anointed with the ability to declare a source to be legitimate or not, is the moment that we lose objectivity and impartiality.”

While there is no neat, tidy list of journals that engage in robust publishing of scientific papers, there are some clues that can help determine if a journal is the type that would offer Szust an editorship. Psychologist Eve Carlson, who has published in legitimate journals and been targeted by predatory ones, put together a list of warning signs.

One tipoff is that no one specific person is identified as the editor. This may be an indication that several persons have been “hired” as editors, much in the same way that Szust scored 48 job offers.

Second, the journal should include a legitimate address and telephone number. If a Google Map search of their address brings you to Mail Boxes Etc., or a split-level ranch home, that’s a sizable clue that the journal is phony. As to the phone number, if calling it produces the following results, the journal is likely counterfeit: 1. No answer, nor even a recorded message. 2. The opening salutation is ‘hello,’ as opposed to the professional, “This is blah, you have reached such-and-such a publication.  How may I direct you call?” 3. The call is forwarded to the 1-800 phone bank for the publisher. When Carlson had this experience, the person who answered at the phone bank was unable to tell her the name of the journal editor.

Another warning sign is if a search engine that caters to journals in a specific field fails to produce hits when a journal’s name is entered. As part of her investigation, Carlson entered the name of a supposed bio-medical journal into PubMed and came up empty.

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is hostility to criticism, so it follows that a pseudoscience journal would not welcome questions about how it operates. Jeffrey Beall of the University of Colorado-Denver compiled a list of journals that engage in these shady practices. For his effort, he received a notice from a publisher’s attorney that he was on a “very perilous journey” with “serious legal implications.” Someone doing real research will let it stand on its own or offer new evidence, not threaten to get contrarian views silenced.  

Finally, some journals post alleged interviews with its editorial board members that are in fact  electronic questionnaires that produce this type of response:

Q. What has been your experience with this journal?

A. The spam e-mails I’m sent, wanting me to purchase space in it.

Volleys like the one above have been fired in the counterrevolution against predator publishers. Professors have submitted strings of gibberish to phony publications and counterfeit conferences, and these “works” were accepted and labeled as “peer-reviewed.” The professors then blew the whistle on the offending journals. There are so many such journals out there that this would be an ineffective method of rooting out all of them, but it’s still a success when fraudsters are exposed.

In one such takedown, computer science professors David Mazieres and Eddie Kohler made it into one of these journals by submitting a treatise that consisted of “Get me off your Fucking Mailing List” repeated hundreds of times.

Splendid. And if they change it to, “Get me off your Fucking vaccination schedule,” they can make it onto Natural News as well.

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