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Misconduct in science: the Panama Papers and more, much more…
  1. C Niek van Dijk
  1. Correspondence to C Niek van Dijk, Orthopaedic Department, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; C.N.vanDijk{at}amc.uva.nl

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It used to be a standing joke in Italian universities that to become a full professor, you needed 1.5 kilos. That’s to say, you needed to publish that much. Never mind the quality, just go for quantity… The joke was about the Humanities and later the Social Sciences. But could this corruption extend to proper sciences—and to medicine?

It already has…

In my mailbox this morning, there was an invitation to publish about coccydynia in the ‘Journal of Musculoskeletal Disorders’; an invitation to editorialise for a ‘special edition’ of ‘Aesthetic Surgery’; similar requests from the ‘Journal of Comorbidity’ and ‘The Journal of General Medicine’; another brought greetings from the ‘Journal of Orthopaedic Research & Physiotherapy’, along with an invitation to speak at ‘Surgery Conference 2018’, another to speak at Surgery & Anaesthesia and another for the Sixth World Summit on Nursing & Health.

We all get these invitations from phony congresses and phony journals. We are all used to messages like: ‘Annie Foster invites on behalf of “Medical Case Reports”’, which ‘accepts papers in all fields of the Medical Sciences’.

Sometimes they are computer-generated and do not even mention which journal they are touting for: ‘We gladly invite you to submit your manuscript for the upcoming issue of the Journal. For this issue you are welcome to submit in all aspects of medical sciences’.

And so it goes, day after day. By 2016, researchers were already getting 2.1 spam emails every day inviting us to publish in phony journals and attend phony conferences.1

Last week, the ‘20th International Conference on Sports-medicine and Research’ was held in Amsterdam.2 This ‘conference’ was widely advertised but under many different names. There were 16 speakers from India, Asia, the Arab countries and Africa. There were some ‘sports-medicine’ presentations, including ‘Pelvic floor-exercise for low-back pain’ and ‘evaluation of sprint-velocity in elite-sprinters’ (using a stopwatch, perhaps?). But others were outside medicine completely, like ‘nanoparticles’ and ‘battery safety systems’. The entrance fee was €300 for non-speakers and €500 for speakers. (Hmm… were these speakers contributing something or were they buying something?) The organiser was the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology (WASET) and promised that conference papers would be published online.

This was a typical predatory conference3 which mostly benefits its organiser’s bank balance, but sometimes also boosts its speakers’ ‘academic’ credentials.4 5 WASET produces several thousand of these scientific conferences every year, with names that resemble conferences that might be organised by real scientific organisations.6 7

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has been probing this shadowy world of phony journals and predatory conferences.8 They have analysed the largest pseudoscientific websites, especially India’s OMICS Publishing Group, which was started in 2008, and now publishes over 700 journals, and Turkey’s WASET, which mainly runs conferences. It has also investigated companies like Science Domain (India) and Scientific Research Publishing (China).9

ICIJ has examined 175 000 articles (and that’s really a lot of kilos…). They found these organisations were charging to publish articles that they did not bother to peer review (or review by editorial committee) and were accepting papers from pharmaceutical companies.10 11

Since July 2018, there has been a Wikipedia entry12 that defines predatory publishing as ‘exploitative open-access academic publishing that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open-access or not). The idea that they are “predatory” is based on the view that academics are tricked into publishing with them, though some authors may be aware that the journal is poor quality or even fraudulent.13 New scholars from developing countries are… especially at risk of being misled…’

Although pseudoscientific journals are not new, their numbers have surged. Publications have tripled since 2013 and now implicate some 400 000 scientists. In Germany alone, more than 5000 scientists—including those who have been publicly funded—have published their articles in such predatory journals.2 8 10

In the Netherlands, WASET has published 100 conference papers from 500 Dutch authors and Dutch institutions, and between 2012 and 2018, OMICS published 300 articles from at least 750 Dutch scientists.2

This is obviously a problem. This is what Nobel laureates have been saying about it. ‘The entire credibility of science is at stake’, according to Ferid Murad, the 1998 winner for physiology or medicine. ‘I’m horrified that scientists are publishing in such journals’, said cell biologist Randy Schekman, a 2013 winner.8 ‘This kind of thing has to be stopped’, said Robert Huber of Munich, a 1988 winner for Chemistry. ‘If there is a system behind it, and there are people who take advantage of it, then it has to be shut down’, said Stefan Hell, the 2014 winner for chemistry.10

These eminent scientists are clearly worried. But are they worried about the right thing?

Joachim Funke, a psychology professor (and Ombudsman) for the University of Heidelberg, has summarised their position: ‘this is a disaster for science, because it allows unchecked claims to be promulgated, and made to look like science’.10

It does. But we need to think clearly here, or we will be treating the symptoms, while ignoring the disease. And that is not good medicine. These phony journals are peddling phony science, because they ‘fail to uphold basic standards of quality control’, as the ICIJ report says.8 In other words, they are cheating, but—and this is a most important ‘but’—a lot of ‘scientists’ are also cheating, with their help.

Yes, some scientists are being fooled and do not realise they are dealing with phony journals. It may seem a godsend for young researchers trying to advance their careers and desperate after many rejections—or simply not paying enough attention.14 But other ‘scientists’ are cynically pushing their ‘research’ into print, bypassing peer review. In other words, these phonies are satisfying a market need.

But what created this market need? Quite simply, science has bureaucratised―and it is not only the social sciences. Science is still about progress, but the concept has morphed. It is no longer progress-towards-the-truth (or being excited at being-part-of-that-progress). It has now become progress-in-your-career and that means publishing your 1.5 kilos. As they used to say, Never mind the quality, just go for quantity….

As a result, governments and universities are being infiltrated by people with bogus scientific credentials.15 Hmmm…

Can phony journals be recognised?

It is clear that phony journals satisfy a market need. Make no mistake about that. They publish substandard articles within a few weeks, without checking and without peer review—whatever they might claim—and for a relatively low fee (usually US$150–200).8 10 They camouflage themselves as high-quality journals, and their titles and websites seem similar. But they usually lack editorial committees. Many are based in India, China, the Gulf Region, Africa or Turkey.6 9 10 They rarely belong to organisations that ensure proper process, like Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) or International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, and although they seem to be indexed, even these can be phony. WASET’s journals are indexed by WASET’s very own ‘International Science Index’, not to be confused with the Institute for Scientific Information index, that is, the Web of Science.16 WASET journals used to be indexed by Scopus and were listed in the SCImago Journal Rank from 2009 to 2011, when their coverage was cancelled.17 Predatory journals still use Google Scholar as their database for calculating metrics. But Google Scholar does not screen for quality.

Most pertinent, OMICS and WASET articles are not indexed in appropriate databases like PubMed.14 In the future, this will make them very difficult to find―even those articles that do have value. But at least they will not show up in meta-analyses. It is horrifying to think of fake studies with fake content finding their way into meta-analyses! Like poison seeping through the body.

Once they have been recognised, phony journals and their authors can be shamed

Remember, a parasite is only successful until it is noticed. The internet is already full of warnings from disgruntled scientists, and OMICS and WASET are being investigated by the US judiciary for fraud and deceit. They have even been surveilled.

Many authors and institutions cite WASET conference papers on their CVs. But increasingly they are being ridiculed, and in the USA, they are being prosecuted for job application fraud.

But there is a ‘grey area’, where conscientious but substandard journals can be mistaken for outright crooks. This is what hindered Jeffrey Beall, at the University of Colorado. From 2010, he compiled a list of nearly 10 000 ‘malicious’ journals.18–20, In January 2017, however, he had to remove his website because of pressure from lawyers of predatory journal companies, from legal threats and slander… but also complaints from ‘grey-area’ journals that were getting caught in the crossfire.21

What about the long-term problem?

The internet has transformed scholarly publishing, making it much easier to find things. We no longer need to visit a library or have expensive books and journals delivered to our homes. We can reach them online, through a laptop or smartphone. And that’s just marvellous. But the internet has also created monsters, which are getting out of control.

We like to think that more publications means more science—and that science is moving faster. But it does not―and it is not. Many of these publications are just white noise, and open-access scientific journals have mushroomed into a global money-driven industry.

We must ensure that journals behave properly and fulfil their obligation to science. The eventual solution is what Shakespeare called ‘that bubble, reputation’. Reputation is what distinguishes a fine journal—which everybody looks up to, and trusts—from a phony journal. Reputation will eventually kill off the phonies, because everybody will be ashamed of them and by them. But this will take time.22

What can we do?

There are some basic rules you can follow. When you are considering a sports-medicine congress, check if it is International Society of Arthroscopy, Knee Surgery and Orthopaedic Sports Medicine (ISAKOS) approved. When you have a manuscript, check the library guides before submitting. The Directory of Open Access Journals23 is a Swedish database of honest journals that provide peer review. The largest resource is Cabell’s The Journal Blacklist,24 which is intended for use by authors, funders and institutions. But you can start by checking with your colleagues, asking whether they know a particular journal or recognise its editorial board or any articles that it has published. You can also use the checklist at Think – Check – Submit 25 to help you determine if a particular journal is right for you!

And remember, phony journals charge very low processing fees (often below US$200), and they often use email (and non-professional or non-academic addresses) rather than a proper submission system. Be suspicious of this.

But what about all those emails? How can we stop that? Remember that every email account has a ‘blocking button’. Take a few minutes to press the button, and these emails will pop up less frequently. But do not make the mistake—as I did—of clicking the ‘un-subscribe’ link at the bottom of an email, because this will only draw their attention, and you will get dozens more invitations. Remember, these companies own hundreds of other journals, which are just waiting to bombard you.

And the future?

Remember, we are dealing with parasites, and parasites can always adapt. We have to assume these phonies will get smarter and quicker and disguise themselves better.

We can assume they will raise their prices, to look like bona fide journals (at present they only charge US$200, whereas a proper open-access journal would charge US$1000–3000). They will probably start using a submission system, rather than email addresses, and I would expect them to start delaying publication from the current few days to, say, a more respectable 2 months. In this period, they will claim to have ‘peer reviewed’ your article. Of course, that would be almost impossible to check.

And they will start behaving like confidence tricksters, because that is what they really are…confidence tricksters. There is already evidence of this. They have just tried the ‘double-friendbluff on me. First, they contacted the corresponding author of a joint article with ‘Hallo, I don’t know you, but I do know Professor Niek. Can you give me his email address?’ Then they contacted me, saying ‘Hallo, I don’t know you, but I do know your friend, and he thought you would like to contribute an article to our journal’. Hmm…

To avoid all this, do not put your personal address on any article, even if you are the corresponding author. Just put your institutional address and let them do the screening.

Some final suggestions…

Phony publishers have access to huge databases that include the names and email addresses of thousands of scientists. We could defeat them using the same tactics. We could make up our own lists. That would continue Jeffrey Beall’s work but avoid his legal problems. I am convinced that established publishing houses would support this.

The scientific committees of organisations like ISAKOS should put guidance on their websites and alter their Codes of Conduct to help members identify phony journals and predatory conferences, and every university should amend its Code of Conduct.

But more than this, organisations like COPE, OASPA or STM could produce a ‘white-list’ of proper peer-reviewed journals. And a ‘black list’ of predatory journals. That would certainly help. They can also produce a ‘grey list’. These grey area journals have 1 year to prove their place on the white list. If not, they will go to the black list.

Once these lists are in place, they would need to be carefully monitored and updated.

COPE, OASPA or SMT could also publish a blacklist of authors who publish in phony journals. Once we have that, we could blame them and shame. Congress organisers like ISAKOS, European Society of Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery and Arthroscopy (ESSKA), American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and European Federation of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (EFORT) could start screening their invited lecturers against this blacklist. Reputable journals could screen their submissions. Academic institutions could check whether their scientists are just producing kilos or proper peer-reviewed papers, and employers could use it to screen potential applicants’ CVs.

Rejections based on such a blacklist would give a strong signal to the scientific community that we don’t accept these parasites and cheaters, and I don’t think it would need many rejections…

References

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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