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“Sting” catches research journals publishing reports without vetting

Oct. 4, 2013
World Science staff

A whop­ping 157 re­search jour­nals ac­cept­ed for pub­lica­t­ion a spoofed sci­en­tif­ic re­port full of de­lib­er­ate non­sense—and most did so with lit­tle or no vet­ting, a “st­ing” ope­ra­t­ion has re­vealed.

A cor­re­spond­ent for the sci­ence jour­nal and news mag­a­zine Sci­ence sub­mit­ted the pa­pe­r to 304 jour­nals, of which more than half ac­cept­ed it, the cor­re­spond­ent, John Bo­han­non, re­ports in the cur­rent is­sue of Sci­ence.

The tar­geted jour­nals were “o­pen ac­cess,” a type that charges au­thors for pub­lica­t­ion rath­er than sub­sist­ing on sub­scrip­tion fees. 

The ranks of open-ac­cess jour­nals have swelled in the past dec­ade and, Bo­han­non ar­gues, now in­clude some clear bot­tom-feed­ers. Some of these both prey on le­git­i­mate sci­en­tists and, it now ap­pears, are will­ing to pub­lish non­sen­si­cal re­ports from non­ex­ist­ent sci­en­tists, he added.

Act­ing in the name of a made-up sci­ent­ist from a made-up in­sti­tu­tion, Bo­han­non sub­mit­ted ver­sions of the fake pa­per, then with­drew them as soon as they were ac­cept­ed. The hoax pa­per claimed that a par­tic­u­lar mol­e­cule ex­tracted from li­chen slowed the growth of can­cer cells. 

“Any re­viewer with more than a high-school knowl­edge of chem­is­try and the abil­ity to un­der­stand a bas­ic da­ta plot should have spot­ted the pa­pe­r’s short­com­ings im­me­di­ate­ly. Its ex­pe­ri­ments are so hope­lessly flawed that the re­sults are mean­ing­less,” wrote Bo­han­non, who cre­at­ed the pa­pe­r in con­sulta­t­ion with real sci­en­tists.

Besides skipping the est­ab­lished “peer re­view” process in which pa­pers are sent to other scient­ists for vet­ting, Bo­han­non added, many of the snagged jour­nals are in coun­tries other than where they claim to be lo­cat­ed. 

“About one-third of the jour­nals tar­geted in this sting are based in In­di­a—overtly or as re­vealed by the loca­t­ion of ed­i­tors and bank ac­counts—mak­ing it the world’s larg­est base for open ac­cess pub­lishing,” he wrote. “A­mong the India-based jour­nals in my sam­ple, 64 ac­cept­ed the fa­tally flawed pa­pe­rs and only 15 re­jected it.”

There’s noth­ing wrong with open-ac­cess sci­en­tif­ic pub­lishing in it­self, Bo­han­non not­ed, and many pub­lish­ers prop­erly re­jected the re­port. 

“The flag­ship jour­nal of the Pub­lic Li­brary of Sci­ence, PLoS One, was the only jour­nal that called at­ten­tion to the pa­pe­r’s po­ten­tial eth­i­cal prob­lems, such as its lack of doc­u­menta­t­ion about the treat­ment of an­i­mals used to gen­er­ate cells for the ex­pe­ri­ment,” he wrote. PLoS One re­jected the pa­pe­r.

Bo­han­non al­so had ku­dos for Hin­dawi, an open-ac­cess pub­lisher in Cai­ro that han­dles more than 25,000 ar­ti­cles per year from 559 jour­nals. Both Hin­dawi jour­nals tar­geted in the sting re­jected the pa­pe­r, he said.

Bo­han­non and oth­ers al­so stressed that open-ac­cess jour­nals are not the only un­scru­pu­lous ones. Da­vid Roos, a bi­ol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Penn­syl­va­nia, told Bo­han­non that if the sting had “tar­geted the bot­tom ti­er of tra­di­tion­al, sub­scrip­tion-based jour­nals… I strongly sus­pect you would get the same re­sult.”


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A whopping 157 research journals accepted for publication a spoofed scientific report full of deliberate nonsense—and most did so with little or no vetting, a “sting” operation has revealed. A correspondent for the science journal and news magazine Science submitted the paper to 304 journals, of which more than half accepted it, the correspondent, John Bohannon, reports in the current issue of the publication. The targeted journals were “open access,” a type that charges authors for publication rather than subsisting on subscription fees. The ranks of open-access journals have swelled in the past decade and, Bohannon argues, now include a number of bottom-feeding publishers. Some of these both prey on legitimate scientists and, it now appears, are willing to publish nonsensical reports from nonexistent scientists, he added. Bohannon, acting in the name of a made-up scientist from a made-up institution, submitted versions of the fake paper to the journals, then withdrew them as soon as they were accepted. The hoax paper claimed that a particular molecule extracted from lichen slowed the growth of cancer cells, and it was riddled with obvious errors and contradictions. “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s shortcomings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless,” wrote Bohannon, who created the paper in consultation with real scientists. Bohannon added that many of the journals are located in countries that are not where they claim to be located. “About one-third of the journals targeted in this sting are based in India—overtly or as revealed by the location of editors and bank accounts—making it the world’s largest base for open access publishing,” he wrote. “Among the India-based journals in my sample, 64 accepted the fatally fl awed papers and only 15 rejected it.” There’s nothing wrong with open-access scientific publishing in itself, Bohannon noted, and many publishers properly rejected the report. “The flagship journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS One, was the only journal that called attention to the paper’s potential ethical problems, such as its lack of documentation about the treatment of animals used to generate cells for the experiment,” he wrote. PLoS One rejected the paper. Bohannon also had kudos for Hindawi, an open-access publisher in Cairo that handles more than 25,000 articles per year from 559 journals. Both Hindawi journals targeted in the sting rejected the paper, he said. Bohannon and others also stressed that open-access journals are not the only unscrupulous ones. David Roos, a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Bohannon that if had “targeted the bottom tier of traditional, subscription-based journals… I strongly suspect you would get the same result.”