Spring break season is here, and, like a lot of beachgoers, science too is suffering some stings — albeit not of the jellyfish kind.
In the latest ploy, reported recently, a group of researchers at the University of Wroclaw, in Poland, tried to seat a fictional scholar onto the editorial boards of 360 academic publications.
The goal: to test whether, with just a CV — full of fake scientific degrees — and a profile on Academia.edu as well as a fake university, some would accept a scholar named “Anna O. Szust” (which translates to “Anna, a Fraud” in English) as a member of their editorial boards.
And many did. The sting, reported in Nature, netted 48 journals — nearly all of which were so-called “predatory” journals. Such journals accept manuscripts without reviewing them, print them without editing them, and otherwise make a mockery of the scientific literature by pumping out low-quality work.
Some offered Anna potentially lucrative profit-sharing. Others required payment from her.
Not one of the 120 legitimate publications included in the scheme fell for the ruse.
Although the operation was cute, those results weren’t surprising. After all, this isn’t the first such stunt; a top bovine excrement researcher, Hoss Cartwright, has ended up on boards, too. And at legitimate journals, editors are generally very wary of scientists who try to get themselves on editorial boards.
“I’m suspicious of anybody who applies to be on our ed board,” said Elizabeth Wager, editor of Research Integrity and Peer Review. “We have had a couple of such applications … and we turned them down.”
“It is unthinkable that a fictitious individual could be named as an editor” at his journals, said Ferric Fang, the editor in chief of Infection and Immunity and the deputy editor of Clinical Infectious Diseases. (Full disclosure, both Fang and Wager are on the board of directors of our nonprofit organization, the Center For Scientific Integrity.)
In other words, this sting seems to be beating a dead horse.
But another sting against predatory publishers could pack a real punch — and it hasn’t yet been done, at least not in a systematic way. Three years ago, two big publishers were forced to retract 120 gibberish papers that they had accepted and published. What’s missing are stings that submit fake papers to journals and include a control group of traditional publishers — not the known miscreants, but the ones cited every day in publications like this one — and then see what happens.
We’ll withhold judgment until we see the results, but let’s just say that we’d be surprised, based on the sorts of papers we sometimes see published, if all of them passed the test. Yes, predatory journals do a lot of damage. But without suggesting some sort of false equivalence, we submit that they’re not the only ones.
In the meantime, other efforts also are worth noting. A new paper in BMC Medicine, for example, offers researchers a 13-point, evidence-based checklist for helping them identify and avoid predatory journals. Those red flags include the promise of rapid publication; a mash-up of unrelated research interests, like biomedicine and, say, forestry; lack of a retraction policy; a low per-page publishing fee (less than $150); a bogus but official-sounding metric such as the Index Copernicus; and a website riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.
Those criteria seem a reasonable step now that Beall’s List — a controversial but very useful catalog of publishing’s bad actors — is no longer with us.
But stings still have their place — now let’s make sure they help advance science.
Ivan Oransky writes for STAT, from where this article is adapted with permission.