Saturday, 23 July 2016

Writing Bollocks


Every morning when I arrive at work I check my emails over a strong cup of coffee. I've usually accumulated about twenty. Most are mundane admin crap which I immediately delete. However, the other day one email in particular piqued my interest. I've included it in its entirety for my reader's edification and delight:
 
Dear Dr Flaxen Saxon,      
I hope this email finds you well. My colleague Sharon asked if I could get in touch with you about a paper you authored titled 'A examination of the Mustelidae genome with special emphasis on the evolution of synaptic mechanisms during meiosis'. Firstly thank you for taking the time to publish this, it was an interesting read. I am hoping to have the opportunity to discuss having a short follow-up or perhaps a review article published in one of the next issues of the Tipton Medical Review. I think our readers could be interested in a paper with information from any continued research or new data since this was published. It would not have to be a long article, but if you don't have time for this perhaps you could also reach out to the co-authors or one of your students to collaborate. 

If you have moved on from this line of research I am certainly interested in knowing more about your current projects; perhaps there is the potential for an article that would fit our journal. If you have any questions about whether or not a certain subject fits our scope I can put you in contact with Dr. Earwig Mugumbo from our editorial board. 

Sorry if it has proved a long tedious read. Wow, a solicitation to publish in a journal I've never heard of. And knock me down with a sock with a billiard ball inserted, they seem genuinely interested in my arcane research into ferret genetics. This deserves to be investigated especially as I do have a follow-up paper to my original masterpiece, entitled: 'Further ruminations on Muctelidae meiosis pertaining to pachytene chromosome configuration'. Today is going to be a good day.   

Dutifully I looked up said journal to check out author requirements and similar such shit. Methodical is my middle-name, after all (actually it is Stanley). The actual requirements seemed a little loose for my liking however they did stipulate that I would have to pay an author's fee of US$1,000. What? I am particularly fond of the previous model of journal publishing where I get my paper published for nowt and where those shiny pieces of gelt stay firmly grasped in my prodigious and often sticky hands.

Being a wise old scrote I was well aware of the 'predatory journal model'. Anyone can set up a website claiming to be a 'journal'. Existing literature can be trawled and authors names culled. Thousands of emails are then sent out to scientists throughout the world soliciting papers for their journal. The only requirement, as far as I can see, is that you pay a huge fee. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the open access model where the author pays a small fee to allow content to be published for free online access. And indeed, some very successful and respectable journals operate this way, PLOS ONE, for instance. However open access is exploitable by unscrupulous individuals hoping for a quick buck. The established model of journal publication does not charge the authors but instead there is a subscription fee for those wanting to access content. Both publishing models share one very salient feature: They peer review all submissions. While not a perfect filter it will highlight poor quality papers and blatant bollocks. I suspect the new breed of online journals do no such thing and therefore become a repository for junk science.  

To be honest most researchers will not be fooled by these people but the fact that they can run a lucrative business means that some scientists are willing to pay to see their name in lights. A quick check of the online papers is very revealing. Most are coming from the 'Third World'. Very few papers are being put forward by scientists based in Western Europe, US or Australasia.

So what is the harm? If folk are gullible and stupid- more fool them. After all these companies are not operating illegally, although the practice is morally dubious to say the least. The problem arises because of the increase in the proliferation of poor quality and useless papers and data. It makes the job of the professional scientist harder as he or she wades through research papers trying to select the wheat from the chaff. There are online lists outing dubious journal mills however, the folks running these enterprises are getting canny. They are in the habit of buying  respectable 'journal names' for promulgating their crap. Therefore they are relying on the journal's prior good reputation to fleece the befuddled. They even 'steal' journal names and set up convincing websites; very naughty. Thus researchers may be fooled although the large fee should raise a red flag for the prudent scientist. Caveat emptor. 

To give you an idea how much of a problem this is, here is a few stats: In 2013, 126 predatory journals were identified. In the first half of 2016 this had gone up to 882. Someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money. 

Anyway, I've decided to ask my student to write a bogus paper and submit to the 'Tipton Medical Review'. It will be plausibly written but a complete load of bollocks. I will place my name as co-author and we will see what transpires. I'm hoping that they will be greedy enough to accept the article for publication before they receive the fee. I'll keep my diligent readers informed of developments. Watch this space.

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