Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gresham's Law

Jeffrey Beall, who has done invaluable work identifying predatory publishers and garnered legal threats for his pains, reports that:
Hyderabad, India-based open-access publisher OMICS International is on a buying spree, snatching up legitimate scholarly journals and publishers, incorporating them into its mega-fleet of bogus, exploitative, and low-quality publications. ... OMICS International is on a mission to take over all of scholarly publishing. It is purchasing journals and publishers and incorporating them into its evil empire. Its strategy is to saturate scholarly publishing with its low-quality and poorly-managed journals, aiming to squeeze out and acquire legitimate publishers.
Below the fold, a look at how OMICS demonstrates the application of Gresham's Law to academic publishing.

Following John Bohannon's 2013 sting against predatory publishers with papers that were superficially credible, in 2014 Tom Pears wrote a paper that "that absolutely shouldn’t be published by anyone, anywhere", submitted it to 18 journals, and got accepted by 8 of them. None of them could even have understood the title:
“Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.”

Look more closely. The first half is about soil science. Then halfway through it switches to medical terms, myeloablation and PBSC infusion, which relate to treatment of cancer using stem cells.

The reason: I copied and pasted one phrase from a geology paper online, and the rest from a medical one, on hematology.

I wrote the whole paper that way, copying and pasting from soil, then blood, then soil again, and so on. There are a couple of graphs from a paper about Mars. They had squiggly lines and looked cool, so I threw them in.

Footnotes came largely from a paper on wine chemistry. The finished product is completely meaningless.

The university where I claim to work doesn’t exist. Nor do the Nepean Desert or my co-author. Software that catches plagiarism identified 67% of my paper as stolen (and that’s missing some). And geology and blood work don’t mix, even with my invention of seismic platelets.
Among the publishers recently acquired by OMICS were two previously legitimate Canadian companies. Tom Spears tried and scored again:
OMICS has publicly insisted it will maintain high standards. But now the company has published an unintelligible and heavily plagiarized piece of writing submitted by the Citizen to test its quality control. The paper is online today in the Journal of Clinical Research and Bioethics — not one of the original Canadian journals, but now jointly owned with them. And it’s awful. OMICS claims this paper passed peer review, and presents useful insights in philosophy, when clearly it is entirely fake.
Bryson Masse's Fake Science News Is Just As Bad As Fake News explains how Spears came to submit the paper:
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.

“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.”
...
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.
At the New York Times, Kevin Carey's A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia reveals that OMICS is following the lead of less deplorable academic publishers who have observed that in the Internet era, conferences are less vulnerable to disintermediation than journals:
The caller ID on my office telephone said the number was from Las Vegas, but when I picked up the receiver I heard what sounded like a busy overseas call center in the background. The operator, “John,” asked if I would be interested in attending the 15th World Cardiology and Angiology Conference in Philadelphia next month.

“Do I have to be a doctor?” I said, because I’m not one. I got the call because 20 minutes earlier I had entered my phone number into a website run by a Hyderabad, India, company called OMICS International.

“You can have the student rate,” the man replied. With a 20 percent discount, it would be $599. The conference was in just a few weeks, I pointed out — would that be enough time for the academic paper I would be submitting to be properly reviewed? ... It would be approved on an “expedited basis” within 24 hours, he replied, and he asked which credit card I would like to use.

it seems that I was about to be taken, that’s because I was. OMICS International is a leader in the growing business of academic publication fraud. It has created scores of “journals” that mimic the look and feel of traditional scholarly publications, but without the integrity. This year the Federal Trade Commission formally charged OMICS with “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”

OMICS is also in the less well-known business of what might be called conference fraud, which is what led to the call from John. Both schemes exploit a fundamental weakness of modern higher education: Academics need to publish in order to advance professionally, get better jobs or secure tenure. Even within the halls of respectable academia, the difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.
Carey goes in to considerable detail about OMICS and its competitors in the fraudulent conference business and concludes:
There are real, prestigious journals and conferences in higher education that enforce and defend the highest standards of scholarship. But there are also many more Ph.D.-holders than there is space in those publications, and those people are all in different ways subject to the “publish or perish” system of professional advancement. The academic journal-and-conference system is subject to no real outside oversight. Standards are whatever the scholars involved say they are.

So it’s not surprising that some academics have chosen to give one another permission to accumulate publication credits on their C.V.’s and spend some of the departmental travel budget on short holidays. Nor is it surprising that some canny operators have now realized that when standards are loose to begin with, there are healthy profits to be made in the gray areas of academe.
Carey's right, but that isn't the fundamental problem. Two years ago I wrote Stretching the "peer reviewed" brand until it snaps responding to a then-current outbreak of concern about this issue:
These recent examples, while egregious, are merely a continuation of a trend publishers themselves started many years ago of stretching the "peer reviewed" brand by proliferating journals. If your role is to act as a gatekeeper for the literature database, you better be good at being a gatekeeper. Opening the gate so wide that anything can get published somewhere is not being a good gatekeeper.
Gresham's Law states "Bad money drives out good". The major publishers can hardly complain if others more enthusiastically follow their example by proliferating journals (and conferences) and lowering reviewing standards. Their value-added was supposed to be "peer review", but the trend they started has devalued it to the point where peer-reviewed science no longer influences public policy. It is true that industries such as tobacco and fossil fuels have funded decades-long campaigns pushing invented reasons to doubt published research. But at the same time academic publishers were providing real reasons for doing so.

1 comment:

David. said...

Another month, another successful sting against predatory publishers. A Nature comment reports that Polish researchers managed to get Anna O. Szust (oszust is Polish for "fraud") appointed to the editorial boards of 48 journals, including 4 as editor-in-chief:

"Although journals that accepted our fraud were informed that Szust “kindly withdraws her application”, her name still appears on the editorial boards listed by at least 11 journals' websites. In fact, she is listed as an editor of at least one journal to which we did not apply. She is also listed as management staff, a member of conference organizing committees, and ironically, a member of the Advisory Board of the Journals Open Access Indexing Agency whose mission it is to “increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals”."

Gina Kolata's New York Times story has quotes from Jeffery Beall.