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The wakeup call came when news broke in late November about a rather obvious nonsensical article being accepted for publication in a “peer-reviewed” online journal. The article was titled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” and it basically just repeated this request over and over again throughout 10 pages. It even had a flow diagram and a scatter plot graph reiterating the demand. It was beautiful.
The bogus article was created in 2005 by computer scientists David Mazières and Eddie Kohler to be used as a reply to all the spam invitations they kept receiving to attend conferences or to publish in new open-access journals for a fee. The article circulated among colleagues and was used by another computer scientist as a reply to a spam email from the pompously titled International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. Obviously, nobody ever thought it could even be considered for publication, they just wanted to send a clear message.
But well, what do you know! It got accepted! And the acceptance email was marvelous! It included a peer-review report stating that the article was excellent and an acceptance letter stating that only minor changes were required! MINOR CHANGES to all the “Get me off your fucking mailing list” requests! This is hilarious, but it also makes me cringe.
Spam emailing from predatory online journals that will publish anything for a fee has become a pandemic in the last few years. These journals keep mushrooming and this has even led Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado to create a list of all the known predatory publications out there. And it keeps being updated.
But how did we get here?
Science depends on publishing. That’s how you share your results with the world. It’s desirable and inevitable. And there’s a massive business around science publishing. A business that thrives on that inevitable desire to publish. A business that takes years’ worth of scientists’ work, arranges for (free) peer-reviews, makes scientists give up their copyrights, and prints the journals. That’s it. Some publishers don’t even print journals anymore, they’re online-only. In a sense, all journals are predatory. The rest of the world can then pay to read the articles, either by subscribing to a journal or by buying access to a specific paper, or they can access them for free as long as the authors have paid an exorbitant open-access publishing fee.
But it just so happens that science itself has become a rather predatory business. “Publish or perish” is the maxim among scientists. There are highly competitive contexts in which you either produce a significant amount of articles or you get canned. Science and scientists’ careers are now evaluated quantitatively rather than qualitatively.
Science metrics have become a widely debated issue. But it somehow feels that it’s all gone out of control. Young scientists trying to establish themselves and earn grants to fund their research are an easy target for predatory journals. The temptation of an easy publication is overpowering.
This is giving rise to really bad science; shortcuts, “embellishments”, and even fake results are all over. As a consequence, article retractions are growing at an alarming rate. According to Retraction Watch (a blog that tracks retractions and lets the world finally know about them), Nature, a highly rigorous and respected journal, whose acceptance criteria are supposed to be unquestionable, retracted six papers in 2013 and nine in 2014. That’s a lot, and that’s just from Nature.
There are now even elaborate scams for publishing, such as fake peer-reviews done by the authors themselves by indicating fake email addresses for their suggested reviewers. This goes so far that there are now companies offering manuscript preparation services that can even include the submission of fake peer-reviews by fabricating contact details for peer-reviewers. Just recently, Retraction Watch reported that BioMed Central has uncovered about fifty manuscripts in their editorial system that involved fake peer-reviewers, and that Elsevier was retracting sixteen papers across three of its journals after the publisher discovered that one of the authors orchestrated fake peer-reviews.
I don’t know where this will lead us, but the scientific community really needs to think about it.
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