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Bogus journals being used to publish fake science

What's worse than fake news? Fake science - published in legitimate looking journals.

If post-truth has an alarming ring to it, try to imagine a world full of fake science – fake science that is incredibly hard to distinguish from the real thing.
According to a DEF CON presentation written up by Motherboard that would sound like the outline for an amusing Sacha Baron Cohen satire if it wasn’t so serious, such fake science is already upon us.
It seems that thousands of scientists and companies across the world want the credibility boost from having research published, and a cottage industry of bogus publishers has sprung up to service this need – for a fee of course.
Analysing the 175,000 articles published by “predatory journals”, journalists Svea Eckert, Till Krause, and Online Privacy Foundation co-founder Chris Sumner, counted hundreds of papers from academics at leading universities as well as volumes promoted by pharmaceutical and tobacco companies.
This isn’t just vanity publishing, however – after studying two major sites in the sector, they discovered tens of thousands of abstracts for fake scientific papers, including 15,000 from India and 13,000 that originated from the US.
In the last decade, these sites alone had even received 162 papers from Stanford, 153 from Yale, 96 from Columbia, and 94 from Harvard.
It’s likely that several slightly different things are going on here. Some academics might be paying sites to cite research that might not pass strict peer review in order to boost their reputations.
That’s bad news: if scientific research hasn’t passed peer review then making it look as if it has is deceptive, regardless of the motive.
Others might be doing it to aid the credibility of research sponsored by companies in order to obscure a conflict of interest.
There may also be some research that is entirely fictitious, a sort of CV padding used to aid employment or gain credit.

Testing the system, the researchers submitted a fake paper to one site that was subsequently published.
The companies publishing this stuff even run pretend conferences to generate a veneer of respectability for what they are doing, as the researchers found when they turned up to present a “bullshit” paper at a bogus two-hour conference – one of thousands run each year by one publisher alone.
An important moment came in 2016 when the FTC in the US filed charges against one of the companies involved in the deception, OMICS Group. The rap sheet wasn’t pretty:

OMICS does not tell researchers that they must pay significant publishing fees until after it has accepted an article for publication, and often will not allow researchers to withdraw their articles from submission, thereby making the research ineligible for publication in another journal.

This would suggest that at least some of the academics who get involved with the company are being naïve, lured by the promise of easy publication.
The counter argument is that predatory publishing is a form of scientific pollution that should be cleaned up before it does real damage.
As fake news has taught us, the risk is not only that some people become confused about what is real science and what isn’t, but also that they start mistrusting legitimate sources.


I *KNEW* those moon landing scams weren’t legit! And this past summer has been chilly–I’m certain the ice caps are fine!
Isn’t there some means of accreditation that would make this scam more difficult to pull off?
The counter argument is that predatory publishing is a form of scientific pollution that should be cleaned up before it does real damage.
Please stop the world; I want to get off.


I get dozens, perhaps hundreds, of emails a year inviting me to conferences of the most thinly veiled bogosity – usually it’s because I’m declared to be recognised expert in the field, although the field is never computer science or cybersecurity; my paper has already been accepted; all I have to do is choose a topic and submit it at my leisure.
At the risk of offending any real researcher in any field who’s ever been suckered by these crooks…
…seriously? What would be the point of attending such a pointless conference? Even if someone else were paying, why would you even waste your time showing up?


my paper has already been accepted; all I have to do is choose a topic and submit it at my leisure.
A thousand years ago I fell for a similar scam–albeit nothing about it was academic but the lesson it taught me–having somehow gotten myself on a list of artsy-fartsy people who’d inhale a big shiny fishhook. Poetry and song lyrics, judged and curated by fellow artists!
I naively submitted lyrics with zero inkling of what I’d done until
— lo and behold —
A few weeks later I received another letter congratulating me,
“Halfway Down The Mountain has been accepted!”
All that was required of me was send them $49.95 (plus shipping), and I’d receive a copy of a soon-to-be-printed hardbound commemorative volume featuring ALL the accepted songs, which naturally will include my highly-regarded submission.
Ugh. One of those moments new knowledge hits you like a ton of bricks. I’ll bet you that fifty bucks my contribution didn’t make it to the final publication after all.


Ah, the infamous “you’ve been chosen for publication in our yearbook.” You pay the fee and you do indeed receive one. Presumably that makes it all legal: you paid a fee to be published; you got a copy, so it was published. The small print never guarantees anything more than vanity publication…


vanity publication–good description. Lesson learned.
I lived alone at the time. When I opened that letter and realized what a chump I’d been…
If a tree falls in the forest, will it still be embarrassed when there are no witnesses?
I’d have sworn the dogs were looking at me funny.


I feel like this is one of those problems that has the outward appearance of “yeah, but I’m not an academic. How is this actually relevant to me?” until we’ve all slipped sufficiently far down the slippery slope of post-truth that it’s REALLY hard to get back up.
What sources do most people who consider themselves discerning and unlikely to fall for fake news trust today? A reputable newspaper or trade site? A foreign media site for a second opinion? Public radio? Wikipedia, maybe plus checking an external link or two? Family of friends whose opinions they’ve always trusted before? Many may scoff at some of these suggestions, but most of us will likely acknowledge that we trust at at least one or two of them.
So what if the journalist who writes for the news organization, trade mag, radio station or other media site got their info from a fake new journal, and now it’s being propagated around as legitimate (because everyone apart from the original author and the fake science journal thinks it *is* legitimate)? How would I verify for myself if I had questions? If I was detailed and passionate I might find my way back to the journal paper myself, but I’d then most likely trust that as an authoritative source. Multi-vitamin, anyone?
Once the ability to fact-check has been almost totally removed from the regular consumer of information we are going down the very dangerous path where anything goes, believable or not.
Peer review in the scientific process is the one mechanism that has well and truly saved us from ourselves time and time again (and made the science immeasurably better along the way). E.g. I can trust that my transactions across the Internet are confidential and tamperproof to a high level of confidence because I am using TLS v1.2. Why? Not because I’m a world-class cryptographer (I’m not) but because of peer review of a well-established framework. Without peer review we are floundering in the dark.
Shame on any so-called academics who tried to short-circuit peer review on the way to publishing, but greater shame on the so-called academic journals who undermine scientific rigour in general. This is a dangerous issue indeed.


Be careful…peer reviews are not without flaws.
Not that I’m suggesting to do away with peer reviews, but be skeptical about everything.


What is the point? Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet: “Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” And these are published studies in legitimate publications. Many scientific studies can not be reproduced, even ones that have been peer reviewed. The level of scientific fraud out there is simply amazing. They should start putting the fraudsters in jail.


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