“Vanity Fare” (Fraudulent peer-reviewed journals)


Vanity publishers are a long-time bane of the literary world. They enable a has-been and never-was to see their short story (that is way too long) in print. Not just short stories, either, but full-length ones, as well as doggerel, treatises written in Pig Latin, and anything else. These products are usually smaller-than-pocketbook size and are ergonomically challenging to hold and flip through. Still, if a novella that features no plot twists, descriptive writing, or character development needs to be bound and stitched, it’s yours for a price.

A man related to me by marriage had his autobiography printed by such a publisher. He was an older fellow whose schooling had ended after junior high when he had to tend to an ailing mother and the family farm. This sudden halt to his education was common at the time, and it’s understandable why his prose featured many superfluous apostrophes, as well as a lack of subject-verb agreement and properly-placed modifiers. 

He also had a limited vocabulary. However, about every 10th page or so, he would drop in a word like verisimilitude, loquacious, or pedagogical. It was painfully obvious that he had scanned an unabridged dictionary for lengthy, seldom-used words that he could work into what passed for his narrative, in hopes of seeming more impressive and learned. This was an especially bad idea since the book’s title and cover illustration highlighted the years he spent as a hobo.

Another memorable vanity publishing experience I had centered on a work about baseball slugger Jimmie Foxx. Distinguishing itself from other unreadable vanity-published work was that almost every page contained multiple exclamation points. In the unlikely event the author could string strung together two passable paragraphs, it would be broken up by the distracting punctuation.

These examples are harmless, if wincing. But the situation can be more serious when vanity publishers branch into chemistry, physics, and biology. Throwing out scientific jargon followed the word Journal is insufficient to prove valid research, but that’s the ruse some try to pull.

These publications fall into one of two categories: Predatory journals that charge a steep price in exchange for the author being able to say they are published in a scientific periodical; and journals that are put out by and/or cater to niche markets, such as Young Earth Creationists, homoeopathists, and climate change deniers. In either case, these periodicals provides a convenient answer when annoying skeptics ask if the claims have been submitted for peer review.

We will look at some clues that a self-described peer-reviewed scientific journal is a pretender by going through the five sections that define most papers: The abstract, introduction, method, result, and discussion.

In the abstract, an authentic scientific paper should contain a summary of each major section of the article. This allows researchers or casual observers to get a concise overview of the main methods used and conclusions reached. In all instances, the abstract should accurately summarize the paper’s contents.

This is not always the case when a predatory journal or in-house publication is involved. If a company suspects it is being embezzled, it would be insufficient for the accused to show a ledger total was consistent with the money that has come in and been paid out. Investigators would need to check first that the numbers added up, then verify that the expenditures and profits were consistent with what was claimed.

Like a fraudulent ledger sheet, the abstract in a shady journal may not accurately reflect the findings. If the abstract claims that 78 percent of applied kinesiology patients showed noted improvement in six studies, this needs to be fully explained and supported in the paper. But a further reading may show that the studies were not double blind or that the paper left out the 81 studies that suggested no improvement. 

These unethical tactics often work because abstracts are read far more often than the entire paper. I love me some science and skepticism, but can’t recall the last time I sat down and devoured a 156-page, footnoted piece entitled, “Clonal hematopoiesis and the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

The reluctance of 99.9 percent of the population to seek out and read these works enables pseudoscientists to compile long lists of abstracts that seem to support their position and blast it online. Few persons would be willing and able to access all the papers, much less spend weeks detailing a refutation. Those that take on that admirable task, such as Dr. Steven Novella, Dr. Kevin Folta, and Brian Dunning, often only complete their response after the disinformation campaign has been churning for six months.

On to the introduction. While the abstract is not, strictly speaking, part of the paper, it is what almost everyone reads first. So an ideal introduction will provide a smooth segue from the abstract, then give a broader summary of the research before assuming a narrower focus. Perhaps most important, it highlights how the study has closed gaps in our scientific knowledge.   

By contrast, an introduction written by a pseudoscientist usually has an unspecified, meandering aim. This is often a sign that the “research” and “studies” were intended only to arrive at a predetermined outcome that furthers an agenda.

Consider a paper written for the Institute for Creation Research journal, in which Russell Humphreys set out to prove that Earth’s magnetic field intensity is consistent with a 6,000-year-old planet. The first five paragraphs are similar to what’s seen in legitimate scientific study journals. It outlines the mainstream position, explains the rationale behind it, suggests it is mistaken, and outlines how Humphrey’s contrarian position will be supported.

But it quickly veers from that course. The author relates time he spent employed in a GE laboratory pondering how the electric current that generates Earth’s magnetic field began, and how he came to realize the answer lied in II Peter 3:5. This leads into another tributary of thought in which he breaks down the root meaning of the Greek word for “form.” Breaking down the original Greek or Hebrew meaning is what Young Earth Creationists and other fundamentalists do when the Bible blatantly contradicts itself or endorses a horrible idea, such as forcing a woman to marry her rapist or God siccing bears on children for teasing a bald man. They never seek out the root meaning when coming across the “love thy neighbor” sections. In this case, the word “form” didn’t mean what Humphreys wanted it to, so he finagled a new definition via a self-taught crash course in linguistics.  

Humphreys’ wandering through the scientific wilderness eventually lead him to this: “In an iron bar magnet, the individual magnetic moments of electrons in the iron atoms add up linearly to comprise the magnetic moment of the whole magnet. In the same way, the individual magnetic moments of the hydrogen nuclei in the created water would add up linearly to make an overall magnetic moment at the instant of creation. I assigned the symbol “k” to represent a fraction from 0 to 1 of the hydrogen nuclei that God aligned.”

Humphreys bypassed almost the entire Scientific Method to arrive at this conclusion and his sentence about a Hebrew deity ordering subatomic particles into existence had little bearing to his stated goal of addressing magnetic field intensity.  

Now the method section, which describes the particulars of what is being studied, be it cells, rock formations, or elk migratory habits. It will also explain what tests or observations were done and how they were carried out and what controls were used. It should also detail the statistics which resulted from these analyses.

In this section, pseudoscientific papers may contain fatal errors, such as a sample that is not representative or which featured insufficient randomization. For instance, the most well-known study to conclude that GMOs posed dangers was done by French nuclear biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini. He based this mostly on health issues that developed in rats following their ingestion of genetically-modified food.

However, members of the rat strain he used have an average lifespan of two years and experience cancer rates of more than 75 percent regardless of what munchies they find in the garbage or laboratory trough. Because the experiment covered the rats’ lifespan and since the rate of cancer was no higher among those not eating GMOs, Seralini’s conclusion of GMO danger had no validity. Another key error was his using 10 rats per group, just one-fifth of what protocols in such experiments call for.

Pseudoscientific papers are also recognizable for their lack of proper controls. There are “studies” that purport to show the efficacy of acupuncture. Yet few of these include a control group whose subjects receive telescopic needles that serve as a placebo. This makes them zero-blind studies, which are of no scientific value.

Meanwhile, the results section contains tables, graphs, and pie charts that show the study’s results in easily-digestible form. For a pseudoscientist, this portion is most likely to be the smoke-and-mirrors section of the paper. It is simple to concoct misleading impressions by cherry-picking numbers or employing tricks like only showing a tiny fraction of a Y-axis.

Climate change deniers are fond of showing charts showing a tapering off of average global temperature since 1998. But it only works if that year is the starting point. There was an unusually strong el Nino that year, so if one starts at 1997, 1999, 2009, 1950, or 1750, the warming trend is clear. A similar tactic is to show a graph that reveals the planet being warmer on average 4,000 years ago. While this may be correct, it ignores the impact that deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels has on the undisputed warming that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th Century. Nor does it address what this might mean for the planet if this continues for three more centuries.

Anti-vaxxers are also guilty. They will present graphs that show death rates from various diseases plummeting by 90 percent or more prior to the introduction of vaccines. What they fail to include are graphs that show the incidence rate of the diseases, which invariably stayed steady or peaked until tumbling immediately after vaccine introduction. Medical advancements like the iron lung enabled patients to live longer but the overwhelming factor in eradicating any disease has been a strong vaccination program.

Finally, the discussion section highlights the study’s results and places them in the broader context of previous and continuing research. Genuine papers ensure conclusions are the complete truth, avoid spin, and invite an open forum on the study’s methods, conclusions, and deficiencies. It encourages other scientists to attempt to replicate or falsify the findings.

By contrast, proponents of pseudoscience often exaggerate or even fabricate their results and present the topic as a done deal. You might see claims along these lines: “Evolution disproven!” “Vaccines shown to be deadly!” “Climate change hoax busted!”

Exclamation points have no place in scientific journals; they’re bad enough in vanity-published baseball biographies.


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