A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – Canada – we ran the national food safety info line.
You can imagine rotary phones, but it was a tad more sophisticated.
The question we grappled with was, who’s evidence is right?
We came up with specific guidelines for how to answer questions based on the preponderance of scientific evidence, and were completely transparent about the limitations, using a sound risk analysis framework.
When answers in the scientific literature seemed, uh, weird or missing, we’d go do our own original research and fill in the gaps.
We questioned everything and still do. It’s good for science, but can be hard on relationships.
Any time some hack said, here’s the science to prove something, we would question it.
Apparently with good reason.
As reported by NPR, an elaborate sting carried out by Science found that many online journals are ready to publish bad research in exchange for a credit card number.
The business model of these “predatory publishers” is a scientific version of those phishes from Nigerians who want help transferring a few million dollars into your bank account.
To find out just how common predatory publishing is, Science contributor John Bohannon sent a deliberately faked research article 305 times to online journals. More than half the journals that supposedly reviewed the fake paper accepted it.
“This sting operation,” Bohannan , reveals “the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”
Online scientific journals are springing up at a great rate. There are thousands out there. Many, such as PLOS, are totally respectable. This “open access” model is making good science more accessible than ever before, without making users pay the hefty subscription fees of traditional print journals.
(It should be noted that Science is among these legacy print journals, charging subscription fees and putting much of its online content behind a pay wall.)
But the Internet has also opened the door to clever imitators who collect fees from scientists eager to get published. “It’s the equivalent of paying someone to publish your work on their blog,” Bohannan tells Shots.
Bohannan says his experiment shows many of these online journals didn’t notice fatal flaws in a paper that should be spotted by “anyone with more than high-school knowledge of chemistry.” And in some cases, even when one of their reviewers pointed out mistakes, the journal accepted the paper anyway — and then asked for hundreds or thousands of dollars in publication fees from the author.
A journalist with an Oxford University PhD in molecular biology, Bohannan fabricated a paper purporting to discover a chemical extracted from lichen that kills cancer cells. Its authors were fake too — nonexistent researchers with African-sounding names based at the fictitious Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara, a city in Eritrea.
With help from collaborators at Harvard, Bohannan made the paper look as science-y as possible – but larded it with fundamental errors in method, data and conclusions.
The highest density of acceptances was from journals based in India, where academics are under intense pressure to publish in order to get promotions and bonuses.
“Peer review is in a worse state than anyone guessed,” he says.
The Internet and open access are great tools, but like any technology, hucksters will be there to exploit the tool for personal (PhD) gain.
Maybe the peer-review system needs to open up, and the Internet can help with that.