The scientific literature has seen its share of child prodigies – such as a nine-year-old who published a study in JAMA, and a group of eight-year-olds who reported on bumblebees in Biology Letters. But Alexandre Martin of the University of Kentucky sought to help his seven-year-old son get published in a non-traditional way – by submitting his school report to a journal on Jeffrey Beall’s predatory list, the (now-defunct) International Journal of Comprehensive Research in Biological Sciences. They recount the story in a recent paper in Learned Publishing, giving young Martin his first taste of academic publishing, and helping his father expose its flaws.
Retraction Watch: As part of your experiment, you reformatted a booklet written by your seven-year-old about bats. In an excerpt in your paper, one line says “Bats are really cool animals!” The entire paper was only 153 words, according to The Times Higher Education. Did you think the paper would be accepted by the journal?
Alexandre Martin: I was quite confident that it would get accepted, considering past “experiments,” such as the “Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List” paper. However, I thought that we would have to try a couple of different journals before it got in. I did not expect that it would get accepted on the first try!
RW: The paper was accepted after minor revisions, but you decided not to pay the $60 so as not to tarnish your son’s reputation by having him publish in a predatory journal. Many scientists have of course published in predatory journals — what might be the harm to a young person, who is decades away from a potential career in publishing?
AM: I was willing to pay the fee… but my wife, who has far better judgment than I, put a stop to it. She considered that the stigma that comes (or, that should come!) with publishing in such journal was not worth it, just to prove a point. She knew that these journals have bad reputation, and feared unforeseen negative outcomes. In retrospect, she was absolutely right since the editor replaced the entire text.
RW: As you note, this story has an interesting twist. After you declined to proceed with the article, the publisher sent you galley proofs of an entirely different paper, with only the title, author, and figures the same. (You soon realized all the new text had been plagiarized from two different sources.) How did you feel when you received these galley proofs?
AM: Initially, I felt bad as I thought the editor had spent a lot of time on this, wanting to make sure that he was still publishing a good quality paper. I was also disappointed that my son would not have his paper published as he written it… However, when I quickly realized that this was completely plagiarized, I was shocked and angry to see that somebody was willing to do such a thing, whatever the reason was.
RW: Since this journal is now defunct, does that suggest the system isn’t as broken as it may appear? In other words, so-called “bad” journals will be winnowed out.
AM: Yes and no. The scientific publishing/peer review process has, itself, never been a guarantee of quality. How a paper takes its place in science/history is more in the way it is cited and referenced. As you pointed out, the fact that the journal no longer exists is in-line with that. My problem is more with the short-term repercussions of publishing in these journals, such as “junk science” being quoted in the media as serious scientific research, or authors “buffing-up” their CV using this system. I think there is a need to expose this phenomenon. Not only to the journalists and the greater public, but also to academics themselves (for instance those on Promotion & Tenure committees) who are often not aware of the existence of these journals. This is one of the thing that Jeffrey Beall at University of Colorado has been advocating for a while now.
RW: What did this experience teach you about the problem of predatory journals?
AM: As mentioned earlier, I believe that these journals have a very negative and immediate impact on the scientific community, and everybody needs to be aware of them. A first good step would be to make universities aware of how serious this problem is, and make sure they impact negatively performance reviews.
RW: Your son is listed as a co-author on your Learned Publishing paper, with his picture and affiliation (elementary school). That must have been a thrill for the both of you.
AM: Indeed! Although he appears not as excited as I am… I definitively want to thank my colleagues who convinced me that this was a story worth telling on a bigger platform. And of course, we are very thankful to the Editor-in-Chief at Learned Publishing, Pippa Smart, who really helped us make this paper worthy of publication in such a reputable journal.
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