“Your Paper Really Attract Us”: Do Fake Scientific Journals Represent The Biggest Threat To Science Since the Inquisition?

When I was doing research in the field of echocardiography, and writing and publishing lots of research papers, there were only a few important cardiology journals that I wanted my papers published in.

It wasn’t easy getting my research published; after the paper was submitted, it was sent to two reviewers who critiqued it extensively and gave it  a thumbs up or down. Often, to satisfy the reviewers, I had to revise the manuscript multiple times, a process which could take months and months.

I knew once my work was published, however, that this heavy vetting process guaranteed that my paper appeared in a medium that was highly respected alongside similar important and well-vetted scientific work.

For the eighty-plus  papers that I published between 1987 and 1998, I paid not a dime, but I spent innumerable post-work hours reading, writing, and analyzing data.

In those years prior to the interweb, the process of researching a topic was laborious and time-consuming; I would spend hours in the medical libraries of various hospitals searching through the stacks of hard-bound medical journals for relevant articles. Once found, the very heavy tome containing the paper I needed would be lugged to a “Xerox” machine and copied.

I cannot recall one circumstance where a journal wrote to me asking me to submit a paper to them. The journals I published in were overwhelmed with high quality submissions from important scientists and only accepted a low percentage for publication.

The Rise of Open Access and Fake Scientific Journals

Unfortunately, we are now in an era of what I would term “fake scientific journals,” and in such journals it is quite easy to publish if one simply pays the asking price: somewhere between 150$ and 500$.

Publishers of these journals prey on scientists who are desperate to have their research published in order to survive in academia.

Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, noted the rise of this practice in 2008 and began researching what he termed “predatory journals.”  In a paper published in 2010 he wrote:

“These publishers are predatory because their mission is not to promote, preserve, and make available scholarship; instead, their mission is to exploit the author-pays, Open-Access model for their own profit.”

In 2012, Beall began listing (Beall’s list) predatory publishers and journals, and offered critical commentary on scholarly open-access publishing in a blog entitled  Scholarly Open Access.

Predatory journals have arisen in parallel with a change from print-only subscriptions to digitally available and free scientific publications.

It is important but often difficult to differentiate legitimate “open access” scientific journals from these profit-motivated sleazy journals.

A brief history of scientific publishing and the rationale for moving to open access publishing from Bowman:

Nature was first published in 1869, Science in 1880, and subsequently scientific journal publishing has increased to the point of a new paper being published every 20 seconds.1 In 2000, the future of scientific publishing was changed by the debut of PubMed Central and the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The next year, thousands of scientists called for a boycott of journals that would not allow free access on PubMed within 6 months. In 2002, for-profit Biomed Central began charging authors $500 to publish. In 2003, PLoS Biology was launched, charging authors $1500. By 2006, PLoS initiated the non-profit PLoS One, charged a $2500 author fee, and reviewed articles by placing scientific rigor over importance. In 2008, NIH mandated that papers published as a result of its funding be made free to the public within 12 months, and in 2009, the US Congress permanently required that all funded investigators submit electronic versions of their manuscripts to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central.2 By 2010, PLoS generated revenues greater than costs and PLoS One became the world’s largest scientific publisher by volume.

My Brush With Fake Scientific Journals

From time to time since my days of research in academia, I have collaborated with medical residents at my hospital in writing what are termed “case reports.” These are descriptions of interesting patient cases and most prominent journals are not interested in publishing them.

However, I’ve noticed that with increasing frequency, I am receiving solicitations from journals I’ve never heard of based on my having published these types of papers.

Here’s my latest invitation. The editors of this journal (American Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine) first bizarrely ask me “how is everything going?”  then state that:

Your paper entitled Coronary Artery Fistula?\\Associated Endocarditis: Report of?Two Cases and a Review of the Literature from Echocardiography really attract us.
Are you interested in interested in sharing some other papers in this field?
If we may have the honor, we would like to publish your other papers in our journal.

Two weeks later they sent me a similar email with the verbiage slightly modified, but still horribly mangled:

We have learnt your paper entitled Coronary Artery Fistula?\\Associated Endocarditis: Report of?Two Cases and a Review of the Literature from Echocardiography, and are very attracted by its topic.
If you would like to publish other papers in the related subjects, you may consider to publish them in our journal

Both emails invited me to become a member of the editorial board!

How Can You Know Which Journals Are Fake?

Beginning in 2012, these types of journals were tracked by Beall’s list. In January 2017, Beall, “facing intense pressure from my employer, the University of Colorado Denver, and fearing for my job,” removed all of the blog contents from the internet.

(For a fascinating history of Beall’s work in this area see his article published here).

I found his list of predatory publishers resurrected  here.

Science Publishing Group, the publisher of  the journal that keeps emailing me is on the list.

A brief look at the website for Science Publishing Group does not reveal immediately that it is a predatory publisher. There are 80 scientific journals listed and they all have legitimate sounding names. However, I have never heard of any of them.

I searched in vain through the cardiology journals listed to find a paper that was the least bit interesting or important. Most of the listed editorial board members and authors were from third world countries. When I researched an American editorial board member  of one journal I found that he was a medical student.

Sting Operations on Fake Journals

Sting operations by academics have shown that papers that are composed of meaningless gobbledygook are often accepted by these types of journals as long as the publication fee is paid. The New Yorker has a great article describing such operations.

The Bohannon sting in Science two years ago found that 45% of a sample of publishers included in the directory of Open Access Journals accepted a bogus paper submitted for publication.

A recent sting operation also showed how anyone can become an editor or even “editor-in-chief” of one of these journals. From The NY times :

The applicant’s nom de plume was not exactly subtle, if you know Polish. The middle initial and surname of the author, Anna O. Szust, mean “fraudster.” Her publications were fake and her degrees were fake. 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.

Yet, when Dr. Fraud applied to 360 randomly selected open-access academic journals asking to be an editor, 48 accepted her and four made her editor in chief. She got two offers to start a new journal and be its editor. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”

Fake Conferences

Adding insult to scientific injury is the rise of fake scientific conferences.

I’ve been invited to lots of these important sounding conferences just based on publishing one case report. These emails are typically poorly written. If I didn’t know they were complete BS I would be flattered by the complements:

To ensure that you do not miss out, we extend our invitation to you again to express our sincere wish for your participation in BIT’s 9th Annual Congress of Cardiology-2017 (ICC-2017) with the theme of “Bridging Excellence in Cardiology and Clinical Aspects” will be held on 15-17 November 2017 in Singapore.

For your brilliant achievements and precious experience in the field of cardiology, on behalf of the organizing committee, we cordially welcome you to join us and give a presentation about Coronary Artery Fistula-Associated Endocarditis: Report of Two Cases and a Review of the Literature… at this congress.

I think I have had some brilliant achievements and my experiences are quite precious, but I’m definitely not  going to your ridiculous conference.

The Threat to Real Science

All of these fake and predatory scientific journals, editors and conferences could be dismissed as amusing if it weren’t for the fact that they are further contributing to the inability of the public to determine what is real science.

As Beall said

“predatory and low-quality journals are granting the imprimatur of science to basically any idea for which the author is willing to write an article and pay the author fees. This is polluting the scientific record with junk science”

This process is helping to fuel the rise of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) which I have termed “fake medicine.” I’ve included below a long quote from Beall’s recent article which details this problem which he feels poses “the biggest threat to science since the Inquisition.”

Inquisitionally Yours,

-ACP

For your enjoyment, Beall’s full comments on the threat to science:

I think predatory publishers pose the biggest threat to science since the Inquisition. They threaten research by failing to demarcate authentic science from methodologically unsound science, by allowing for counterfeit science, such as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to parade as if it were authentic science, and by enabling the publication of activist science.

Because they aim to generate profits for their owners, gold (author-pays) open-access journals have a strong conflict-of-interest when it comes to peer review. They always want to earn money, and rejecting a paper means rejecting revenue. This conflict is at the heart of the ongoing downfall of scholarly publishing. Increasingly, the consumers of scholarly publishers’ services are the authors, not the readers, and not academic libraries. Businesses naturally always want to keep their customers content, for they want the revenue streams to continue and grow larger, as they add new services – such as more easy-acceptance journals – to their offerings.

Many of the larger predatory publishers, especially those based in Western Europe, offer a niche business. Their businesses are set up to publish manuscripts rejected by the top publishers, that is, papers rejected by Elsevier, Wiley, Sage, Taylor & Francis, Oxford University Press, and several others. They function something like a lender of last resort – they provide a publishing opportunity when no other publisher will, becoming, essentially, a Salon des Refusés for scholarly articles. However, the market is so lopsided now that there are more “publishers of last resort” than there are authentic ones, and they’re all competing with each other for subpar manuscripts.

Like counterfeit science itself, these publishers go through the motions of being a legitimate publisher. Some open-access publishers, even though they are not based in England, hire spokesmen with strong British accents to attend scientific conferences and other meetings and talk up the publisher, often renting a booth in the exhibit hall and even co-sponsoring some of the smaller meetings. They join publisher associations, make a show of donating to open-access causes, and manage to convince one or two aged Nobel Laureates to agree to serve on one of their editorial boards, no work required.

CAM is really taking off, and it’s being largely fuelled by pay-to-publish journals, though a few subscription journals have gotten in on the action as well. Predatory journals and even journals from legitimate publishers are legitimatizing this unscientific medical research in the public’s eye. Acupuncture and homeopathy are thriving, and numerous “studies” are being published each year to back up their effectiveness claims. In medicine, demarcation is failing, and there’s no longer a clear line where legitimate medical research ends and unsound medical research begins (5). More questionable medical research is being published now than ever before in history, including bogus research promoting fake medicines and nutraceuticals. There’s no longer a clear separation between the authentic and counterfeit medical research, even though medical research is the most important research for humankind today. Indeed, of all human endeavours, what surpasses medical research in importance, value, and universal benefit?

One thought on ““Your Paper Really Attract Us”: Do Fake Scientific Journals Represent The Biggest Threat To Science Since the Inquisition?”

  1. Thank you for informative, educational and most helpful article. I presume it is safe to consider the Cochrane reviews as being vetted against the abuse you postulate.

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