Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

May the sting be with you: Another journal prank, too good to overlook

with 10 comments

Yes, yes, we know: It’s easy to publish “fake” papers in journals and expose the inherent flaws of academic publishing. We’ve covered many such stings, but there are simply too many for us to cover all.  Still, occasionally one is just too clever to ignore.

On Saturday, the pseudonymous blogger Neuroskeptic announced that they had written a Star-Wars themed paper that had been accepted by three journals. On Monday, Neuroskeptic announced that two of the journals appear to have removed the papers.

So what’s the point of this latest academic prank? As Neuroskeptic writes on the Discover blog:

So does this sting prove that scientific publishing is hopelessly broken? No, not really. It’s just a reminder that at some “peer reviewed” journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all. Which we already knew, not least from previous stings, but it bears repeating.

This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review. True, they also publish papers (electronically in the case of these journals), but if you just wanted to publish something electronically, you could do that yourself for free. Preprint archives, blogs, your own website – it’s easy to get something on the internet. Peer review is what supposedly justifies the price of publishing.

According to Neuroskeptic, four journals took the bait. The American Journal of Medical and Biological Research (SciEP) accepted the paper, but didn’t publish it when the blogger didn’t pay a $360 fee. Three other journals published the paper in full — the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access (MedCrave), Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Austin), and American Research Journal of Biosciences (ARJ). The first two have since removed the articles, but Neuroskeptic posted a cached version:

Here are some details from the paper, which Neuroskeptic described as “A travesty, which they should have rejected within about 5 minutes – or 2 minutes if the reviewer was familiar with Star Wars:”

…I created a spoof manuscript about “midi-chlorians” – the fictional entities which live inside cells and give Jedi their powers in Star Wars. I filled it with other references to the galaxy far, far away, and submitted it to nine journals under the names of Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin.

(As an aside: “Dr Lucas McGeorge” was sent an unsolicited invitation to work on the editorial board of a completely different journal.)

Neuroskeptic told us:

The goal was to see whether journals would publish a manuscript that, while seemingly scientific, was actually a joke. I didn’t want to just submit nonsense (like a computer-generated text), or a bad paper, but rather something that was verifiably based on fiction (i.e. Star Wars).

The blogger added that two publishers presumably yanked the paper after Neuroskeptic described the sting on the Discover blog (which was subsequently covered by outlets such as Gizmodo and Inverse), but:

It is always possible that they pulled the paper because I never paid the fees (which is why I was surprised they published it at all). But it’s a bit of a coincidence that two of them pulled it at the same time.

 

This isn’t the first sting to bring pop culture into the mix: Earlier this year, the owner of a scientific-editing company published a paper inspired by “Seinfeld,” about a fictitious disease concocted on the show called “uromycitisis.” The paper also included fake references to papers written by “Costanza GL,” and created a fake affiliation (the Arthur Vandelay Urological Research Institute, of course).

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Written by Alison McCook

July 25th, 2017 at 10:05 am

Comments
  • G. Hart July 25, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Just curious: of the “journals” that accepted the papers, where any of them on Cabell’s (or the older Beall’s) Predatory Journal Blacklist of scam journals, which are on the list specifically for these reasons, or were they submitted to actual, respected journals? It seems to me that the scam open-source journals will publish pretty much anything and, so, are not respected journals to start with, making this sensationalist story pretty much a non-issue. It’s a little like wrapping a mudball in a candy wrapper and offering it to a 3 year old, knowing they’ll take it, then pointing and then laughing when they do. Not a great “prank”, and it proves nothing. What’s the point?

    If these are actual, respected journals (I’ve never heard of any of them, though admittedly, I’m not familiar with every scientific journal out there), then this would, indeed, be a problem. Rather than this being a “prank”, it exposes a serious underlying issue with the peer review process (which I wholly support and believe in).

  • Ken Pimple July 25, 2017 at 11:17 am
  • Peter Nigos July 25, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Neuropskeptic chose to identify his fake authors as academics at a real institution (http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:fmDEmb9f2nIJ:austinpublishinggroup.com/pharmacology-therapeutics/download.php%3Ffile%3Dfulltext/ajpt-v5-id1094.pdf+&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk). I’m not so certain the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, an institution founded in 1907, appreciates the joke. Is there an opportunity for an interesting legal case despite the retractions ?

    • herr doktor bimler July 25, 2017 at 5:13 pm

      There is no “Department of Medical Cell Biology” at the University of
      Saskatchewan, though.

  • Michael July 25, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    To echo the first post: I really don’t know what the point of these stings is. There are literally thousands of scientific Journals and by definition, a certain fraction of them should probably not referred to by that term. I can’t imagine the thought process that would lead someone to publish their work in one of these venues. Peer review certainly has its flaws but let’s find more constructive ways to address them.

  • DDefguille July 25, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Funny, hmmm, no, just bored with these stories. It’s a marketplace, there will be crap. Shut these down and new titles will appear. I think most scientists get the point now.

    • Samuel Zagarella July 25, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      Actually, yes it IS funny , but that is not the point. Scientists may now get it, but the public and journalists don’t understand it, so it is useful to continue these stings so as to make it known to the general public that just because something calls itself a “scientific journal” it is not necessarily reputable, and slowly things will change

  • David July 25, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    The “predatory journal problem” reminds me of the “spam email” problem as expressed in the late 90s. To wit, I wonder when the discussion will be boiled down to a counterpart of this well-known canned forum post:

    https://craphound.com/spamsolutions.txt

  • Anonymous3 July 26, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I found this paper really fun and I wouldn’t have read it if RW hadn’t posted it. The paper’s mix of seemingly “correct” science info, with hidden gems of fun, is superb. I immediately showed it to my son, who is about to start as a science major in college. I thank RW for posting it!

  • herr doktor bimler July 27, 2017 at 1:22 am

    One of the targetted publishers was OAText, which recently featured at RW when an antivax lobby group used its journals in an attempt to dress up a bad internet poll as a Serious Scientific Study.
    http://retractionwatch.com/2017/05/08/retracted-vaccine-autism-study-republished/

    Recall the entertaining hoop-la last year when Seralini paid some scammer in Nigeria to publish one of his anti-GMO papers so he could tell journalists that his faked toxicity results were Real Science… only to have the paper vanish because the scammer hadn’t paid for domain renewal.
    http://retractionwatch.com/2016/01/27/seralini-paper-claiming-gmo-toxicity-disappears-after-journal-domain-expires/

    What I’m saying is that parasite publishers have become useful tools for lobbyists of various kinds, who want to stovepipe their agenda into the political arena by dressing up conclusion-driven opinion pieces in the mantle of Scientific Respectability. That’s why stunts like this serve a useful function — they remind everyone that many ‘academic publishers’ are press-release services that will publish anything that has been paid for.

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