It’s easy to be suspicious of the medical field. Most people don’t have the training to know what’s legitimate and what’s not, so we have to rely on the health care industry, which we know has plenty of political power. Perhaps that’s why so many Americans still believe in medical conspiracy theories. But when it comes to published medical research, there are papers out there that any layman would recognize as bogus.
It’s a known problem in both science and medicine, often referred to as “publication pollution.” Essentially what happens is certain predatory publishers in academia will publish, well, almost anything, even if it lacks authenticity or basic common sense.
That is, they’ll publish it so long as they get paid. A 2013 report in Science found that certain online journals will publish bad or fictitious research in exchange for a fee. When journalist John Bohannon submitted a deliberately faked research article to 305 online scientific journals, more than half of them accepted the fake research for publication. An interactive map tracks where the bogus paper was accepted and rejected globally.
The growth of these predatory publishers, who are collecting money in exchange for publishing fake research, calls into question the peer review process (or lack thereof) at many open access journals. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate open access publishers as well, but it can be difficult to pick out the offenders.
Harvard-trained researchers sometimes can’t tell the difference, so journalists lacking expertise in the field can easily end up citing fake studies. To help bring transparency to the issue, Jeffrey Beall of the University of Colorado keeps a thorough and useful list of predatory publishers.
After his investigation, Bohannon called for better oversight of these journals, but unfortunately, the publication pollution problem has persisted. Some troubling cases suggest it has even gotten worse. In 2014, publishers Springer and IEEE removed 120 papers from their archives after a French computer scientist discovered they amounted to computer-generated nonsense disguised as scientific jargon.
In late 2014 and into 2015, even more ridiculous examples popped up. A scientific study by Maggie Simpson, Edna Krabappel, and Kim Jong Fun was accepted by two predatory journals, and an article entitled “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?” by Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles, which was created using www.randomtextgenerator.com, was accepted by 17 medical journals. The paper’s subtitle reads, “The surgical and neoplastic role of cacao extract in breakfast cereals.” The journals asked for a $500 “processing fee” prior to publication.
These articles were, of course, submitted with the express intention of outing illegitimate publishers.
Mark Shrime, who submitted the Cocoa Puffs article, told Fast Company what angers him most is how these fake journals target doctors and researchers from developing countries. “They’re preying on people who aren’t able to get into the mainstream medical journals because they come from a university that nobody recognizes or they have some other scientific disadvantage.”
There is, ironically, limited research on the full scope of the pollution issue, but Jeffrey Beall, who keeps up the list of potential, possible, or probable predatory open access publishers, reported that the number of predatory publishers grew from 225 in 2013 to 693 in 2015, and predatory standalone journals on his list grew from 126 to 507.
There are three major causes of the ongoing publication pollution problem, according to Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, who commented on the subject in April 2015. The first problem is predatory publishers, and they comprise an estimated 25% of all open access journals. The other causes are research misconduct, such as falsifying or fabricating data, and outright plagiarism. Caplan remarked,
“All these polluting factors detract from the ability of scientists and physicians to trust what they read, devalue legitimate science, undermine the ability to reproduce legitimate findings, impose huge costs on the publication process, and take a toll in terms of disability and death when tests, treatments, and interventions are founded on faulty claims.”
Caplan claimed that those impacted most aren’t responding with the appropriate level of alarm, and he proposed a national meeting of leaders in science and medicine to aggressively address the pollution problem.