If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Tom Spears, a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen, you have missed some clever lampooning of fake journals. But that work has not gone unnoticed in some circles, apparently: In the not-so-cleverly named journal Significances of Bioengineering & Biosciences, whose publisher’s motto is “Wings To The Research,” a researcher named Sam Yosemite seems to have nominated Spears for the Nobel Prize. And in what some might consider a miracle — or just a made-up story — we managed to locate questions that the “late Dr. Adam Oransky, who gave his life rescuing six frostbitten Sherpas from an ascent of the Catskills without oxygen last August,” according to Yosemite’s editorial, meant to ask Spears. (Oransky’s work on time travel has been rumored to be in the running for a Nobel for some time, but his untimely death of course ended that possibility, given the Prize’s prohibition against posthumous awards.) That interview follows.
Retraction Watch: Dr. Yosemite seems to be nominating you for “the Nobel Prize,” but as everyone knows, there is more than one Nobel Prize. Which one do you think he meant? And do you think you deserve this honor?
Tom Spears: Well I certainly hope it’s for literature. If I win one of the science prizes, given my level of science education, that would be a travesty. On the other hand I’ve been writing newspaper stories for 40 years and if someone wants to give me a prize for that I will be glad to accept. I wrote a pretty good obituary on a tree a few weeks ago. How many writers can say that?
RW: Dr. Yosemite claims as his affiliation “Institute for Variant-Reproactive Interstercis.” The only reference to that institute we can find is in this paper. Are you sure it exists?
TS: The institute was a hard title to invent because the auto-correct software kept trying to turn the gibberish into real words and I had to override it. Writing good nonsense is harder than you might imagine. It does illustrate, however, that make-believe words can sound surprisingly realistic because the line between highly technical language and jumbles of Latin- or Greek-based roots is pretty thin. I believe this makes life easier for flimflam artists who can dress up a ridiculous message in high-sounding language. Look how well it worked for phrenology, and Piltdown Man. And chemtrails.
RW: In fact, we can find no reference to Dr. Sam Yosemite, only thousands of references to Yosemite Sam, a renaissance man who appears to have been a chef and a pirate, among other incarnations, but never a scientist. Didn’t that make you just a wee bit suspicious?
TS: Yosemite Sam is an old favourite of mine. He has a characteristic way of speaking and when I was looking for a pen name he just popped into my head. (The fact that I was at the office, searching for Yosemite Sam quotes on company time, is a separate issue.) Anyway, this journal sent out spam asking for volunteers to serve on its editorial board, and I decided to answer under Sam’s name just to amuse anyone who happens to look up the ed board. The catch of course is that no one would have a reason to look up the editorial board of such a rancid little publication in the first place. Anyway, once Sam was on the board, they asked him to write an editorial.
RW: A response to Yosemite’s editorial from one “Foghorn E Leghorn” of the “Watts-Updock Institute,” known, as best we can tell, specializes in carrot research and is staffed by rabbits, objects to the nomination. Specifically, he says that you are “about as sharp as a bowling ball,” and “about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.” Mixed metaphors aside, how do you respond?
Foghorn Leghorn exists to rant. That’s his entire role on Bugs Bunny, and he goes on and on with a bewildering flurry of oddball similes that criticize everyone around him. It is an honour to be one of his targets. I was also curious to see whether the journal would accept his distinctive style of speaking because it is so far from academic style of expression.
A final point: Yes, this is just a ridiculous exercise, and I’m not covering it as a news story because the routine is getting a bit stale by now. But I think it makes the point that if I can get this outrageous praise in print, how much easier is it to create a more subtle form of undeserved academic credit? This journal tried to charge me $431 for the editorial, plus $200 for Dr. Leghorn’s letter, so the industry must be producing results that are of value to somebody.
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