It's easy to forget that science is not always as scientific as we might like to think it is. Like any other discipline, scientific research is a complex web of connections between scientists, universities, other research institutions, the government and the arbiters of all things worthy: the journals. Back in the ink-and-tree days, journals were few and many were prestigious with names like Science and Nature. If you read about something in one of these journals, it was damn legit. The journals also hosted academic conferences, where peer-reviewed research was presented and sometimes scientific history made. But that was then.
These days, things aren't so simple. Because it's become so easy to start a new publication in this new pixel-driven information economy, a new genre of predatory journals is emerging at an alarming rate. The New York Times just published an exposée of sorts on the topic. It's only an exposée of sorts because the scientific community knows about the problem. There are blogs set up to shame the fake journals into halting publishing. There are tutorials online for spotting a fake journal. There's even a list created and maintained by academic librarian Jeffrey Beall that keeps an eye on all the new fake journals coming out. When Beall started the list in 2010, it had only 20 entries. Now it has over 4,000. The journal Nature even published an entire issue on the problem a couple of weeks ago. So again, scientists know this is a problem. They just don't know how to stop it.
The big problem with these fake journals is that there's a market for pay-as-you-go science. That's a term I just made up to describe the practice of writing checks in order to get published. As the well worn out cliché goes, acadmics must publish or perish, and when a well-padded resume could mean the difference between getting a teaching job and tutoring middle schoolers, plenty of newly minted Ph.D.s are willing to participate in the shady business. Some of these journals charge thousands of dollars to be included in the publication, and then thousands more to attend the conferences. Yeasayer academics probably think of it as an investment in their future.
The other big problem is simply that these fake journals are really good at seeming like legit journals. The Times offers the example of the Entomology-2013 conference this year. The conference organizers hand-picked all kinds of prestigious-sounding speakers who would sit on panels and present new research. They put their photos and impressive job titles on the website and invited others to attend or present at the conference—for a fee. Some of these fake webites are so convincing that they trick the media into thinking they're real.
It all sounds very legit, except it's not. The whole thing is a sham. The name, for instance, is a ripoff of Entomology 2013 (no hypen) which actually is a very prestigious conference about
bugs insects. And some of those impressive professors that they flaunted while recruiting attendees weren't even aware that their likeness was being used for the conference. It appears the organizers just ripped the photos off a university website and republished them. Attendees who were recruited by email could still pay thousands to go to the conference and present their papers. They just have to hope that the department heads reading their resume in a few months don't notice that tricky hyphen.
If you're pretty native to the web, this all probably sounds familiar. Especially in the early days, when knowing a little bit of HTML could enable you to build a whole information portal, we web natives have been trained to be skeptical. As things like phishing scams have become popular attacks, we've learned to check URLs before trying to log in to sites. We've even been conditioned to cross-reference claims on Wikipedia with other, more dependable sources. And the latest thing, as evidenced in New York's new profile on BuzzFeed and its sponsored content strategy, this idea of paid-for publication is not going to go away. We just have to remain skeptical.
For the academic science community, they'll have to innovate as well. Based on the scale of the problem, it seems reasonable that a regulatory body could set up a verification process, kind of like that little blue sticker on celebrity Twitter profiles except useful. Meanwhile, be careful what you read online, and if you're an academic, be careful who you believe, especially if they're asking you for money.
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