The Junk-Bond Salesmen of Science: A Tribute

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[UPDATE:  see links below* for the titles of predatory journals]

In honor of the posts of Michelle Nijhuis and Christie Aschwanden, too many posts to link to, about the detection, prevention, and treatment of bullshit.

I hate being lied to.  I purely hate it.  I hate it with a cold, hard hate.  I understand that “lying” means different things to different people, anything from exaggeration to story-telling to wishful thinking to ass-covering to purposeful deception.  I understand that what one culture regards as an outright lie, another might regard as courtesy to the person being lied to.  I understand that some lies are little and acceptable, and others are big and not.  I’ll arbitrarily define the lying I hate as: a person knows that the truth matters to you and also knows that what he/she is telling you is not the truth.  This is a short rant because of various things and, you know.  Current events.

Also because I just gave a talk to an editors’ conference in which I promised that if editors, writers, and readers would just think the way scientists do, the whole world would be immunized against liars.  Then I got home from the conference and read in Nature an article titled “Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor.”   “Predatory journals” are the telephone junk-bond salesmen of science.  

So it turns out that not even scientists are 100% immunized against liars.  That’s for several reasons, but in this case, the last few years have seen an outbreak of fake scientific journals.  These journals write scientists admiring emails, asking them to submit articles or become editors and when they do, the fake journals collect publishing fees.  The fake journals apparently number in the thousands; scientists get these emails daily.  I’ve received a few of these emails myself and I’m not and never have been and never will be a scientist.

The Nature article about fake journals was a joy.  It was by group of Polish researchers who sounded annoyed:  “. . . no one has examined the issue systematically.  We did.”

They created a pretend scientist named Ann O. Szust – “oszust” being the Polish word for “fraud” – who sent identical applications for an editorship to 360 journals, a third of them the real deal, the other two-thirds fake.  The researchers gave Dr. Szust a CV that was “dismally inadequate for a role as an editor.”  Most journals didn’t respond.  Those real journals that did respond turned her down flat.   Within days or sometimes hours, 49 of the fake journals appointed her as editor-in-chief or editor.  About a dozen of them strongly encouraged her to subscribe, donate, organize a conference, split the profits, start a new journal.  In the end, the researchers wrote the fake journals who’d accepted Dr. Szust as an editor that she kindly withdrew her application; but she stayed on the mastheads of several of the journals anyway, including one to which she had never applied.

Why would scientists fall for this kind of nonsense?  The fake journals had titles that were confusingly similar to real journals, for one; for another, real journals often do have publishing fees; but mostly, said the researchers, “publish or perish” is real, and perishing happens.

The researchers didn’t list the fake journals.  The reason they gave was the confusingly similar titles might end up impugning the good names of the real journals.  A librarian named Jeffrey Bealls had published an online list, but this last January it disappeared.  I wish I knew those names.

*[Thanks to the internet wayback machine and reader Alexia Sabor, Bealls’ list of the publishers of predatory  journals can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20160716122657/https://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/.  And the names of the journals themselves are here: http://web.archive.org/web/20160721165856/https://scholarlyoa.com/individual-journals/.  LWON has the best readers/commenters in the galaxy.]]

I don’t know whether publishing the names and lies of liars does any good.  Certainly it won’t persuade the liars to come to Jesus and stop lying.  And it won’t help we who are lied to either because, sadly, nothing, not even science, completely immunizes you against liars.

But if we can’t stop lies and we can’t stop believers in lies, then what to do?  Just light them up, I guess. I like the increasing conversations on Twitter and Facebook about what is and isn’t a lie.  And I like the noble experiment in outing lies and/or factlessness that’s being done by the Washington Post and New York Times and countless other journalistic and social media entities. Just yesterday, the NYT changed a headline that said Trump Says Susan Rice May Have Committed a Crime to Trump Suggests Rice Committed Crime, Citing No Evidence.

I like lies out in the plain daylight, out where I can see them.

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illustration by nini SUM, via Flickr

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Categorized in: Ann, Science Culture

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