In the Name of Science: The Outbreak of Fake Scientific Researches
We have gotten over the fact that most of the click-bait articles we come across in social media aren’t written with precise truths. The rise of click-bait and the business model behind it is gradually changing the dimensions of online journalism. We can hope that the social media sites make drastic changes to their algorithm in order to avert the non-informative or ridiculously false click-bait titles. But, the significantly shocking development of the misinformation plague in the internet is predatory, pseudo-scientific journals and fake peer reviews.
Science as they say is an incremental process. Rarely we come across a scientific invention that’s a landmark achievement. Such great inventions will naturally have the attention of big media outlets and may even win Nobel Prize. But most of the scientific studies have constricted focus. The scientific truths it brings out may not catch the attention of general population, but it could be a very small piece that may provoke a greater scientific advancement (or change the perception of what’s alleged as the scientific truth). In the modern scientific communities, the smaller vital pieces are published as research papers, either in the form of subscription journals (like ‘Science’, ‘Nature’, etc) or in the digital era boon ‘open-access journals’. There’s generally lot of controversies surrounding the public access to the journals. Scientists opt for subscription journals because it attaches certain credibility to their work. It provides a fine platform for their research.
Subscription journals send the research papers for peer reviews, where a committee of researchers goes through the results of a paper. They will assure that the paper is devoid of inaccuracies, etc. Open-access journals haven’t attained the same level of credibility although its papers are also peer reviewed. Generally the researcher pays a fee to publish in open-access journals after the successful peer reviews. Furthermore, these publishers won’t necessarily have to look for quality to further their business model. Over the years, the scientific researchers have vociferously conveyed the dwindling quality control of open-access journals.
In the recent times, science journalist John Bohannon gained attention of the scientific community by exposing the worst ethics of large number of open-access journals. Bohannon who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology designed a bogus research paper (which cited chocolate could help with weight loss) and sent it to hundreds of science journal publishers. At least half of those journals accepted the paper and asked for a publication fee. Mr. Bohannon wrote a detailed piece (titled ‘How I fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss‘) on how he elaborately set up the false research, citing that it’s done by a team of German scientists. American librarian Jeffrey Beall is an critic of the open accessing publishing or what he calls as ‘predatory publishing’. His blog detailed the sting operations to expose the fraudulence of the science journals (the contents of the blog, however, was removed on Jan. 15, 2017 and declared that Beall was forced to shut down his blog due to threats). One of Beall’s significant sting operations is exposing Canada’s most prominent open access publisher.
In 2013, Beall included Canada’s prominent OMICS group (publishes medical journals) into his long list of predatory publishers. The group threatened Beall with a big lawsuit. But, in 2016 US Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against OMICS for publishing un-reviewed articles (for cash) since 2009. From 2009, the company’s number of journals have raised from mere 10 to more than 700 (by 2016). Based on these simple numbers, you could understand the bigger scope of this predatory publishing business model, which is more alarming than the social media fake, click-bait news. OMICs group, of course, maintains that the allegations against them are totally baseless.
In Slate.com’s eye-opening article titled ‘Science’s Big Scandal’, it is mentioned how even some of the well-known international publishers of science were fooled by research papers designed with SCIgen program. SCIgen brings together randomly generated nonsensical words with important keywords and false references (graphs and other diagrams included) to generate computer research papers. Anyone with little grasp of the English language could dismiss the paper as non-sense, yet some alleged ‘research papers’ have passed through peer-reviews and publisheed. All these gross negligence has the dangers to distrust what ought to be an inviolable field. In the era of corporate-funded scientific studies and money-minded journal publishers, real scientific truths could very easily be choked. Armed with click-bait articles and ludicrous number of social media groups, and satirical memes, the giant corporate could easily inject disinformation on the public forum to make us take conscious choices to actually consume what could really be harmful (may be a study will tell how soft-drinks cures certain disease or how drinking water creates terminal diseases). Or at least the disinformation can keep us in a state of confusion (the global-warming debate); to stop us from getting to the truth. In the connected globalized world, ironically, the threat happens to be the ‘echo chambers’ and acceptance of false information. In the fight against this alarming prospect the world needs skilled librarians, scientists, administrators, etc, now more than ever. Or else, we will keep on gorging whatever information –credible or not—that’s spewed out in the name of science.