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:
— Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) July 24, 2017
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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