Fake science journals

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Parse that however you wish, we're plagued with them.

On an average day, I receive solicitations to write papers from them three or four times.  Sometimes they offer me editorships or guest editorships for designated issues.  Sometimes (but not often) they offer me money.  All such e-mails immediately go in the trash, but they leave a bad taste and are unsettling.

What's really bad now is that, whereas they used to come from places I had never heard of, now the fake science sickness has infected some of our mainstream publishing  houses.

"Flood of Fake Science Forces Multiple Journal Closures:
Wiley to shutter 19 more journals, some tainted by fraud"
By Nidhi Subbaraman, WSJ (May 14, 2024)

Why do we have far more of this skulduggery and dishonesty now than we did in the past?

The manifestations of this malaise are more than you can shake a stick at.

Fake studies have flooded the publishers of top scientific journals, leading to thousands of retractions and millions of dollars in lost revenue. The biggest hit has come to Wiley, a 217-year-old publisher based in Hoboken, N.J., which Tuesday will announce that it is closing 19 journals, some of which were infected by large-scale research fraud. 

In the past two years, Wiley has retracted more than 11,300 papers that appeared compromised, according to a spokesperson, and closed four journals. It isn’t alone: At least two other publishers have retracted hundreds of suspect papers each. Several others have pulled smaller clusters of bad papers.

Although this large-scale fraud represents a small percentage of submissions to journals, it threatens the legitimacy of the nearly $30 billion academic publishing industry and the credibility of science as a whole.

The discovery of nearly 900 fraudulent papers in 2022 at IOP Publishing, a physical sciences publisher, was a turning point for the nonprofit. “That really crystallized for us, everybody internally, everybody involved with the business,” said Kim Eggleton, head of peer review and research integrity at the publisher. “This is a real threat.”

Subbaraman, the author of the WSJ article, provides concrete examples of flagrant attempts to circumvent or compromise the legitimate review process.  Although dastardly, some of them are hilarious.  One of the good guys, Guillaume Cabanac, a computer-science researcher who studies scholarly publishing at the Université Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier in France, scans the breadth of the published literature, some 130 million papers, looking for a range of red flags including “tortured phrases.”

Cabanac and his colleagues realized that researchers who wanted to avoid plagiarism detectors had swapped out key scientific terms for synonyms from automatic text generators, leading to comically misfit phrases. “Breast cancer” became “bosom peril”; “fluid dynamics” became “gooey stream”; “artificial intelligence” became “counterfeit consciousness.” The tool is publicly available.

At the center of these unscrupulous enterprises are the “paper mills” —

businesses or individuals that, for a price, will list a scientist as an author of a wholly or partially fabricated paper. The mill then submits the work, generally avoiding the most prestigious journals in favor of publications such as one-off special editions that might not undergo as thorough a review and where they have a better chance of getting bogus work published.

Legitimate scientists and publishers are using AI to spot tell-tale signs of submission fraudulence, but the fraudsters fight back with AI tools of their own to confuse and overwhelm the genuine scientists and honest publishers.

“It’s like a virus mutating,” said Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, one of a multitude of researchers who track fraudulent science and has spotted suspected milled papers.

Scientific papers typically include citations that acknowledge work that informed the research, but the suspect papers included lists of irrelevant references. Multiple papers included technical-sounding passages inserted midway through, what Bishop called an “AI gobbledygook sandwich.” Nearly identical contact emails in one cluster of studies were all registered to a university in China where few if any of the authors were based. It appeared that all came from the same source.

What to do?  Instead of always being on the defensive and at the mercy of the culprits, the accredited authorities should go on the offensive and work for the enactment of laws and penalties.  Make these crimes of sham scholarship cost.

Selected readings

[thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. AntC said,

    May 14, 2024 @ 9:15 pm

    … realized that researchers who wanted to avoid plagiarism detectors had swapped out key scientific terms for synonyms from automatic text generators, leading to comically misfit phrases.

    Ordinary journalism is suffering plagiarism/synonym-swap/news poachers just as much: so-called newspapers or news sites that don't make any attempt at putting reporters on the ground, but merely steal others' articles and rewrite via AI; generating as laughable synonyms as I was probably guilty of as a schoolboy 'borrowing' someone's homework. AI news poachers are littering the internet. We hunt them down | Media Watch (Australia) — first 4:30 there.

  2. Rodger C said,

    May 15, 2024 @ 11:56 am

    “artificial intelligence” became “counterfeit consciousness.”

    Tendentious, perhaps, but comical? ;)

  3. mg said,

    May 15, 2024 @ 12:21 pm

    It's worth following the website Retraction Watch.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    May 15, 2024 @ 1:18 pm

    Why do we have far more of this skulduggery and dishonesty now than we did in the past?

    Because the Internet makes science publishing, both real and fake, much easier.

    Wiley, a 217-year-old publisher based in Hoboken, N.J.

    What a cutesy description. Wiley is one of the Big Four that own almost the entire global science publishing market (some 30 gigabucks as mentioned) and make about 40% profit. It is "based in" a place about as much as Amazon is, if not less.

  5. Conal Boyce said,

    May 23, 2024 @ 8:48 pm

    For more than 50 fifty years now, some observers have been painfully aware of what I call Garbage World. Stanislaw Lem stated it clearly in the 1970s and 1980s (but was perceived as a court jester and hence ignored?) Here are two haunting images of his: "A diamond thrown on a heap of shattered glass" (in One Human Minute, 1986, p. 38). "You will not find those pearls in the ocean of garbage" (A Perfect Vacuum, 1978[1971] pp. 80 and 85). Leonard Meyer, Professor of Music at U of Chicago, later U Penn, saw it coming even earlier, in a book entitled Music, The Arts, and Ideas (1967). But his forecast too seems to have been ignored, because he framed the idea in such polite academic language, delivered in a whisper. Nowadays, various things are attributed "to the Internet" or "to AI" (pseudo-AI, really) but those technologies only pour oil on a pre-existing fire. As framed by Meyer, all of this was inevitable — no one's fault, just the logical end point of certain societal/artistic trends. So, yes, those "invitations" from pseudo-journals are sickening. "Welcome to my world," a composer might say, who has been thinking about that kind of garbage for half a century already, and wondering why so few seem aware that the art-historical time-line no longer even exists (having been sucked into the Eternal Present, currently best represented by TikTok).

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