bad science

Why a Nonexistent Researcher Was Offered a Bunch of Sham Editing Jobs

“Homer? Who is Homer? My name is Guy Incognito, and I am the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Homeric Studies.”

Sham academic journals and conferences are a big and growing problem. These publications and events are, in effect, get-rich-somewhat-quick schemes designed not to promote scientific inquiry but to exploit the vagaries of academia’s economic ecosystem. As the New York Times noted in 2013, “The number of these journals and conferences has exploded in recent years as scientific publishing has shifted from a traditional business model for professional societies and organizations built almost entirely on subscription revenues to open access, which relies on authors or their backers to pay for the publication of papers online, where anyone can read them.”

The top of that Times article, written by Gina Kolata, runs down one real-world example of how this shady world works in practice:

The scientists who were recruited to appear at a conference called Entomology-2013 thought they had been selected to make a presentation to the leading professional association of scientists who study insects. || But they found out the hard way that they were wrong. The prestigious, academically sanctioned conference they had in mind has a slightly different name: Entomology 2013 (without the hyphen). The one they had signed up for featured speakers who were recruited by e-mail, not vetted by leading academics. Those who agreed to appear were later charged a hefty fee for the privilege, and pretty much anyone who paid got a spot on the podium that could be used to pad a résumé.

Whoops! That same year, a new article in Nature notes, the “journalist John Bohannon revealed gaping holes in the peer-review system when his fictitious, purposely flawed research article was accepted for publication by 157 of 304 open-access journals to which it was submitted, contingent on payment of author fees.” This story and others like it have helped fuel the present sense of worry, the feeling that parasitic publications and events are sucking up a lot of time and money and other resources, and doing collateral damage to legitimate science as well. The more journals there are floating around that don’t publish real science, the blurrier the line gets between real and fake publications.

The Nature article provides yet another data point to suggest that things are really bad. The authors, led by the Piotr Sorokowski, a Polish psychology researcher, decided to create an entire fake persona, a woman named Anne O. Szust — oszust being the Polish word for fraud (!), and have her apply to a bunch of editor positions at journals known to be sham-y:

We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included, among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences. We also created accounts for Szust on, Google+ and Twitter, and made a faculty webpage at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The page could be accessed only through a link we provided on her CV.

The profile was dismally inadequate for a role as editor. Szust’s ‘work’ had never been indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases, nor did she have a single citation in any literature database. Her CV listed no articles in academic journals or any experience as a reviewer, much less an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine. Even the publishing houses were fake.

We sent Szust’s application to 360 journals, 120 from each of three well-known directories: the JCR (journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports), the DOAJ (journals included on the Directory of Open Access Journals) and ‘Beall’s list’ (potential, possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals, compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall; Beall took down his list in January this year for unknown reasons, after we had completed our study).

You can probably guess what happened: many acceptances. “In many cases,” write the researchers, “we received a positive response within days of application, and often within hours. Four titles immediately appointed Szust editor-in-chief. No JCR journal accepted Szust. By comparison, 40 predatory and 8 DOAJ journals appointed her as an editor … Szust was almost never questioned about her experience. No one made any attempt to contact her university or institute. One journal spotted that Szust’s cover letter stated that becoming an editor would allow her to obtain a degree that she had listed as already having obtained. That journal nonetheless appointed Szust as editor.”

“At least a dozen” of the journals that accepted Szust as an editor asked for payment, while “[o]thers asked Szust to organize a conference after which the presenters’ papers would be published (for a fee) in a special proceedings issue.” The whole thing, in other words, was geared at generating money, and had nothing to do with Szust’s (nonexistent) academic credentials.

The world of sham journals is a very shady one, and the sheer number of publications leaping at a chance to strike up a business relationship with a researcher who isn’t even a real person should worry anyone concerned about the integrity of academic publishing.

How a Nonexistent Researcher Became an Editor-in-Chief