The Murky World of Scientific Publishing

Updated on October 22, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The scientific publishing industry stretches to as many as 40,000 journals and some of them are “churning out ‘fake science’ for profit” says The Guardian. In other cases, reputable publishers are hoodwinked into giving voice to improperly conducted studies or outright fraudulent science. This matters because researchers rely on the integrity of published science papers to inform their own studies.

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Slow Science Publishing

In the world of academic disciplines there’s a dictum that says “Publish or perish.” For the associate professor ambitious to get tenure she or he must display a body of work through published papers. Prolific writing and citation is also the path to grant money.

Manuscripts accepted to be published by top-quality journals, such as The British Medical Journal or Science, go through a rigorous vetting process. The submission is peer-reviewed by experts in the field of study covered by the paper. Revisions will likely be required and submission for re-review follows. There will be input from editors and an editorial board.

The process can take many months or even years before publication.

Leslie Vosshall calls it a “glacial pace.” She’s a neuroscientist at the Rockefeller University in New York City and, in 2012, she wrote in The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal that “It takes forever to get the work out, regardless of the journal. It just takes far too long.”

For some who are impatient and have a bit of spare cash there’s a short cut.

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Predatory Journals

There’s an entire industry of supposedly reputable science magazines that are anything but; they are known as predatory journals. According to Time magazine there are 10,000 of these journals.

An article in The Guardian identifies two of the leading organizations in this business as “India-based Omics publishing group and the Turkish World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, or Waset.” These companies do publish a few trustworthy journals although critics say they do this to give cover for the ones that carry fake or poor quality science.

In an investigation in partnership with three German publishers, the newspaper found that Omics and Waset skip the traditional steps of peer review and other vetting. They go straight to print with pretty much anything that’s submitted.

There’s just one snag, the authors have to pay a fee to get published.

To demonstrate the lax scrutiny, investigators submitted a computer science article that was gobbledygook created by a joke website. “The paper was accepted for discussion at a Waset conference.”

Recruiting Editors

To give their dodgy journals a veneer of excellence predatory journals hire scientists to serve on editorial boards. Qualifications for such a position seem minimal. To illustrate this, researchers at the University of Wroclaw in Poland created a fake persona for a Dr. Anna O. Szust.

In 2017, they trotted Dr. Szust’s resume and cover letter past 240 legitimate science publications and 120 identified as somewhat disreputable. Eight of the quality publications offered the good doctor a job.

The seedy journals jumped at the chance to use Dr. Szust’s bone fides as a fig leaf to cover their activities. Forty of them made job offers, four of them with the prestigious title of Editor-in- Chief. One even admitted that the job came “with no responsibilities.”

The University of Wroclaw researchers even gave away the nature of their prank for anyone who cared to do a bit of research; the doctor’s name, Szust, is Polish for fraud.

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Quality Journal Retractions

Despite the exacting vetting process for manuscripts, sometimes even the most prestigious journals have to admit that a bad paper got past the gatekeepers.

One of the most famous cases was that of Andrew Wakefield and colleagues who published an article in The Lancet in 1998. This top-flight British medical journal accepted Wakefield’s contention that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause developmental disorders in children.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the Wakefield study was finally exposed as a fraud. He had fudged numbers from a study and failed to disclose he was being paid by lawyers representing clients suing the companies that made vaccines.

However, the damage was done; thousands of parents refused to have their children vaccinated and many of them became sick as a result. Subsequent research found no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism No matter, thousands of people, the so-called anti-vaxxers, refuse to have their children protected against common ailments.

But, the retraction of scientific papers is so common that it has given birth to an organization called Retraction Watch. It publishes a league table of retracted articles with the most citations.

As of October 2018, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has the dubious distinction of leading a crowded field. In April 2013, the NEJM published an article entitled “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.” In June 2018, the journal retracted the article because of some issues with the methodological standards of the study. Again, damage was done. By the time the article was taken down it had been cited by more than 1,700 other researchers.

Nature reported in 2011 that “retraction notices are increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 - even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44 percent over the past decade.”

Bonus Factoids

Kelly Cobey is a publications officer at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada. She has written in Nature of a senior scientist who was invited to submit a paper to a newly established journal. He did so and was sent an invoice of US$979 for the publishing fee. So, he withdrew the manuscript and was sent a $319 bill for a retraction fee.

In 2014, SAGE Publishers retracted 60 articles by Professor Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan. An investigation revealed “peer review and citation ring.”

Yoshitaka Fujii is an expert in postoperative nausea and vomiting; he is also thought to be the world record holder for retractions. In 2012, 183 of his papers were withdrawn after it was discovered he had fabricated data.

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Sources

  • “Does It Take Too Long to Publish Research?” Kendall Powell, Nature, February 10, 2016.
  • “Predatory Publishers: The Journals That Churn out Fake Science.” Alex Hern and Pamela Duncan, The Guardian, August 10, 2018.
  • “Illegitimate Journals Scam Even Senior Scientists.” Kelly Cobey, Nature, September 6, 2017.
  • “The MMR Vaccine and Autism: Sensation, Refutation, Retraction, and Fraud.” T.S. Sathyanarayana Rao and Chitteranjan Andrade, Indian Journal of Psychiatry, April-June 2011.
  • Retraction Watch.
  • “Science Publishing: The Trouble with Retractions.” Richard Van Noorden, Nature, October 5, 2011.
  • “Retractions Are Coming Thick and Fast: It’s Time for Publishers to Act.” Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, The Guardian, July 14, 2014.

Questions & Answers

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      • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

        Rupert Taylor 

        6 weeks ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

        Patty. Your comment about being distrustful of research is a point well taken. The publication of fraudulent papers throws a cloud of suspicion over all science, much of which is highly beneficial.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

        Patty Inglish MS 

        6 weeks ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

        I learned a little about scientific fraud in graduate school/medical school --

        My class was assigned to do a health questionnaire among university employees. I repeatedly needed more phone numbers to call, because many were disconnected and/or staff had moved on to non-university jobs. Being the last to complete my part of the assignment, I overheard several grad students laughing and talking among themselves about falsifying their questionnaires after finding only a few disconnected numbers. The usual professionals who were to spot check calls and answers seemed not to have called any participants.

        I have not trusted much research after that, but look for a lot of corroboration and replication before I cite any paper.

        Thanks for this good article!

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