July 26, 2017
A long con ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
by Ryan Harrington
Fake science is most often sighted stalking the senators and presidents of our land. But it roams other terrain, too. For instance, it can thrive, and has for many years, foraging for scraps tossed over the walls of the Empire of Academia: a contested border region known as the pay-to-publish science journal.
And as long as there have been pay-to-publish academic journals there have been stings — hoax articles that somehow pass a journal’s review process and get published. Recently, the art of the hoax reached peak fun as Discover blogger Neuroskeptic stung three pay-to-publish journals with a Star Wars-themed paper. The blogger describes the project:
Inspired by previous publishing “stings”, I wanted to test whether ‘predatory’ journals would publish an obviously absurd paper. So 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.
The three journals to accept the article—the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access (MedCrave), the Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Austin), and the American Research Journal of Biosciences (ARJ)—didn’t even hit up the shadowy submitter for the money.
The takeaway here is not that the review process is too lax, it is that there often isn’t one. The text, after all, was composed of very heavy-handed references to the Force, an entire monologue from Revenge of the Sith, and lightly (and badly) re-worded chunks of the Wikipedia page for “Mitochondrion”. In a final coup, the author’s note on methodology stated plainly that the essay had been Rogeted from Wikipedia. This is distressing not only because it detracts from the sum of human knowledge, but also for reasons elaborated by our author:
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.
Some journals, it should be said, did reject the manuscript. Others required specific edits before publication.
If you literary types think that you are immune to the sting, don’t. And may the Farce be with you.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.