A spoof scientific report was recently accepted for publication in 157 journals around the world, proving how flawed some open-access publications are.
The fake paper was part of a sting operation orchestrated by John Bohannon, a contributing news correspondent to the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science.
He wrote the paper under the fake name “Ocorrafoo Cobange,” supposedly a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. No such institute or biologist exists.
Bohannon, in an article in the latest issue of Science, describes the fake paper as follows:
“Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z. To substitute for those variables, I created a database of molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines and wrote a computer program to generate hundreds of unique papers.”
That might sound reasonable enough, but the study was riddled with obvious errors and contradictions that an expert in the field should have caught immediately.
Bohannon took the sting operation one step further, by slightly changing each version of the paper before he sent it out to the various journals.
“Submitting identical papers to hundreds of journals would be asking for trouble,” he explained.
To switch up the affiliations, for example, he randomly combined Swahili words and African names with generic institutional words and African capital cities.
“My hope was that using developing world authors and institutions would arouse less suspicion if a curious editor were to find nothing about them on the Internet,” Bohannon wrote.
To position himself as a foreigner writing in his non-native language (the papers were all submitted in English), he translated the paper into French with Google Translate and then translated the result back into English, correcting the worst mistranslations.
To ensure that the versions of the paper “were both fatally flawed and credible submissions,” he had two independent groups of molecular biologists at Harvard University review the paper to fine-tune the scientific flaws so that, as Bohannon described, the mistakes “were both obvious and boringly bad.”
He then submitted the versions of the paper, at a rate of about 10 per week, to 304 peer-reviewed, open-access journals around the world. Despite the paper’s incredible flaws, 157 of the journals accepted it for publication. Only 36 of the journals solicited responded with substantive comments that recognized the report’s scientific problems.
What’s more, Bohannon discovered that some of the journals are not based in the countries they claim. Although many had American or European-sounding titles, several of these publications were actually based in India.
Paul Ginsparg, a Cornell physicist who founded a publishing platform for his field, laments that such a large number of open-access scientific journals are not reviewing papers as they should.
“Journals without quality control are destructive,” Ginsparg told Bohannon, “especially for developing world countries where governments and universities are filling up with people with bogus scientific credentials.”