Fake Science News Is Just As Bad As Fake News
A Canadian journalist set out to get a fake article published in a scientific journal.
Fake news has been getting a lot of attention around the US election, and rightly so. But science has its own problem with fake news—and fake research published in scientific journals. To prove how bad it is, a journalist at a Canadian daily newspaper got some plagiarized 'research' published. According to watchdogs, the problem might be getting worse.
This year, OMICS International, based out of Hyderabad, India, purchased two Canadian medical research journal publishers, which are now "churning out low-quality OMICS material, while still using their Canadian names," as journalist Tom Spears put it in his piece in The Ottawa Citizen.
This summer, OMICS reached out to Spears, who has previously demonstrated how to game the scientific publishing system, and now gets a lot of spam from journal publishers. This time, he decided he might have some fun with them.
Spears explained that he "mostly plagiarized from Aristotle"
"I'd sent test submissions to a couple of predators in the past and had kind of moved on, but then I got this request to write for what looked like a fake journal—of ethics," Spears wrote me in an email. "Something about that attracted me so I just thought: Why not? And one morning in late August when I woke up early I made extra coffee and banged out some drivel and sent it to them."
Predatory publishing is seen as an unintended consequence of open-access journals, which sometimes charge authors a publication fee. Predatory publishers charge a fee, but they don't care about the quality of the work being published, or follow best practices. It means that virtually anyone's ideas, whether they're scientifically sound or not, can become part of the literature. This is exacerbated by the "publish or perish" attitude that has long existed in the research community.
OMICS International and the publishers did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.
University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, who maintains a catalogue of suspect publishers known as "Beall's List," explained that OMICS International is a "mega-fleet of bogus, exploitative, and low-quality publications" in a September blog post about its purchase of the two Canadian journals. (In what was called a first and perhaps the sign of a coming crackdown, earlier this year the US Federal Trade Commission sued OMICS.)
Spears explained in his article that he "mostly plagiarized [the fake journal piece] from Aristotle, with every fourth or fifth word changed so that anti-plagiarism software won't catch it.
"But the result is meaningless. Some sentences don't have verbs, and many of the new words don't make sense—for instance, we changed Aristotle's word 'other' to 'mother.' We scattered around a few modern words (such as geomorphological) but not in a way that means anything."
And voila, his minutes of toil paid off.
It got published without him paying. He did get invoiced, though, and the publisher was not afraid to haggle, said Spears.
"They initially billed me US $949 with a strict-sounding letter about how it's too late to back out and we have a contract. Too high, I said. So, they made me a special offer of $549.
"Still no, I said. We are currently in a standoff at US $399. It's too much fun to back away completely."
This comes at a time when we're taking a magnifying glass to who and what we use to source our information. Spears' efforts here have highlighted another way someone can take advantage of our increasingly open lines of communication.
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