Scientific Rubbish

Just when I thought that I had probably said enough about bad science, along comes another paper in Nature, ( where it was noted that hundreds of junk-science papers have been retracted from reputable journals after fraudsters manipulated the publication process. Many of these were caught in “special issues”, where in some cases the whole issue was rubbish. A special issue is often published when someone suggests that a collection of papers on a specific topic would be helpful. Thus one of those attacked was Springer-Nature’s Journal of Nanoparticle Research. A groups of what appeared to be eminent computer scientists and engineers from well-known institutions in Germany and the UK wrote to the journal’s editors suggesting a special issue about the role of nanotechnology in health care. The editorial board agreed with the proposal and created a special issue entry in its editorial management system and apparently authorised access to three group members so they could handle the manuscripts. Reliance on sloth of others always pays dividends!

It appeared that months later some members of the editorial board argued the papers were of poor quality and they investigated. However, some of the papers had already been published. The investigation revealed that the original proposers were not who they claimed to be. Now this strikes me as evidence of particular slothfulness on the part of the journals. If someone claims to be a senior person at a university, they will be listed on the University’s web page, usually with evidence to support the glowing claims. That is because if the person is any good, the University wants to take what credit it can. Now, if only I knew who these editors were, why I have a very important bridge to sell them.

Which raises the question, why do people do this? One reason suggested by the article is that the scammers offer a service to researchers who are not doing very well. For a payment, they will put the name on the paper. Oddly enough, a paper with many contributors from many places is often considered to be very good, because a lot of people will have sorted out the bad stuff. Nobody checks to see if the names really knew about the paper, so a genuine “big name” can be added. Now the researcher gets another paper from a “reputable journal” to add to their CV, which means they get help for their funding applications, or even keep their jobs. One criticism of that theory raised in the linked item was, “The papers are so obviously terrible, so why would you want them on your CV?” That reasoning is wrong because it carries an inherent assumption: those reviewing the fund application or the promotion/appointment lists actually read the papers. The CV lists a title. It may seem incomprehensible, but on its own that happens with a lot of reputable papers to those not directly involved in the field. As an example, here is the title of a paper “Single ion thermal wave packet analyzed via time- of-flight detection.” That, I must add, is a perfectly respectable paper, but how many readers would know what it was about just from the title? You would have to read the paper to know whether it is respectable, and you would need to know some physics. It would not be that difficult to write something about nanotechnology that looked vaguely respectable to those completely outside the field. All you have to do is take an existing paper and change some words, mainly nouns, but keep the verbs and important keywords.

So what should happen to stop this happening? The first question is, why are Springer and Elsevier being attacked? The answer is these are big commercial publishers, so it is money. The special issues make money without the need for particular effort. But I think the second issue is to examine why people do it? The procedures of funding research or employment must change so that the number of papers is meaningless. The third issue is that you hear that scientific papers are peer reviewed and hence have real value. What this farce shows is that peer review is a farce in many cases. But maybe that is for another time, but not next week.