Alan Sokal’s influence has certainly been felt strongly recently. Last month, a critique by Sokal — who in 1996 got a fake paper published in Social Text — and two colleagues forced a correction of a much-ballyhooed psychology paper. A few days after that, we reported on a Serbian Sokal hoax-like paper whose authors cited the scholarly efforts of one B. Sagdiyev, a.k.a. Borat.
And today, we bring you news of an effort by John Bohannon, of Science magazine, to publish fake papers in more than 300 open access journals. Bohannon, writing as “Ocorrafoo Cobange” of the “Wassee Institute of Medicine” — neither of which exist, of course — explains his process:
The goal was to create a credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable. Submitting identical papers to hundreds of journals would be asking for trouble. But the papers had to be similar enough that the outcomes between journals could be comparable. So I created a scientific version of Mad Libs.
The paper took this form: Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z. To substitute for those variables, I created a database of molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines and wrote a computer program to generate hundreds of unique papers. Other than those differences, the scientific content of each paper is identical.
Bohannon then combed the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and Jeffrey Beall’s list of possible predatory publishers, using various filters:
The final list of targets came to 304 open-access publishers: 167 from the DOAJ, 121 from Bealls list, and 16 that were listed by both.
By the time Science went to press, 157 of the journals had accepted the paper and 98 had rejected it. Of the remaining 49 journals, 29 seem to be derelict: websites abandoned by their creators. Editors from the other 20 had e-mailed the fictitious corresponding authors stating that the paper was still under review…
Bohannon’s analysis, which goes into far more depth, demonstrates an appalling lack of peer review and quality control at the journals he spoofed. But it’s important to note, given the heated and endless debates between open access advocates and traditional publishers, that there was no control group. Bohannon agreed that was a limitation when we asked whether he had considered, as one of his sources suggested, the same spoof with traditional publishers:
I did consider it. That was part of my original (very over-ambitious) plan. But the turnaround time for traditional journals is usually months and sometimes more than a year. How could I ever pull off a representative sample? Instead, this just focused on open access journals and makes no claim about the comparative quality of open access vs. traditional subscription journals.
Still, we will not be surprised if some traditional publishing advocates use Bohannon’s sting as ammunition to fight wider adoption of open access. That gunpowder may be a bit wet, by the way. Bohannon writes:
Journals published by Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage all accepted my bogus paper.
And Retraction Watch readers may recall that it was Applied Mathematics Letters — a non-open-access journal published by Elsevier — that published a string of bizarre papers, including one that was retracted because it made “no sense mathematically” and another whose corresponding author’s email address was “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Retractions, as readers may guess — and perhaps hope — will be forthcoming now that Bohannon’s sting has been revealed. Here’s part of a message the Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association sent its members earlier this week:
In the event that your publishing organization has accepted and published the article, we expect you to follow recognized retraction procedures. if you require any assistance or guidance on retracting the article, the OASPA board will be happy to assist with this. In addition, should it be the case that OASPA members have published the paper, we will prepare a retraction notice/explanation that your organization may choose to use.
We’ll see if this changes the mind of the editor of the Journal of Biochemical and Pharmacological Research, who shrugged when “Cobange” told him the paper was fatally flawed and should be retracted. A correction would do, he said.