Monday, June 9, 2014

The Red Queen Laughs

Okay, so my last entry was pretty serious. But economic and social parasitism can sometimes be funny, so long as the intended victims are alert to what is going on and do not suffer from it.

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I have always been idealistic about science and scientists. Whenever I go to a scientific meeting, I get inspired all over again by the enthusiastic and excellent work done by scientists, whether old professors, young professors, grad students, or undergrads. (The best contributed-paper presentation I ever saw was by an undergrad.) Sometimes you find BS in science, but not often. When I took an ecology course from Joe Connell at Santa Barbara, in 1978, he had us read papers that he claimed were really terrible but got published anyway. Our job as students was to rip them to shreds. Now that I look back on it, I see that the papers were flawed but at least represented a good faith effort by the authors. I remember one of the flaws in a paper by Martin Cody was that he relied on a local fisherman to give him some information about shore birds. We science majors looked down on fishermen. But, I now realize, fishermen may know a lot about nature. The whole citizen-science movement has exploded since those old days of scientific snobbery. Cody may have accepted the fisherman’s testimony a little too readily, but there was nothing unscientific in getting observations from him.

A paper that appeared in Ecological Monographs in the 1980s described the problem of “pseudoreplication,” which is a real pitfall to avoid in research. The author said that too many papers have been published with this kind of error. He described scientific papers as “the coin of the realm” and this coinage needs to have value. He was right and still is. In many universities, the number of peer-reviewed publications is used as one measure of scholarly productivity for hiring, tenure, and promotion purposes.

Since the rise of online publishing—something that was inevitable and can be really good—a whole new kind of problem has arisen that makes pseudoreplication and other statistical errors look totally innocent. I refer to the large number of fake scientific papers. In the old days (I did not say good old days) a fake publisher could be quickly identified and driven out of business, since paper and ink and graphic design and postage are costly. But today it costs hardly anything to set up a “scientific journal” and start issuing online papers. There must be dozens of such journals now on the web. If you pay them, they will publish anything. Joe Connell’s jaw would have dropped at these.

A contributor to the Ottawa Citizen whipped up a fake paper and sent it off to some of these “peer-reviewed” journals. He took half of the title, and half of the material, from geology, and the other half from hematology: the article “Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.” Gotta admit it was creative, especially with the author’s invention of “seismic platelets.” He got several acceptances. A few noticed his plagiarism, but told him to do a little rewording and it could be published.

What’s there to get upset about here? Anyone who hires an applicant or awards a grant to someone whose publications have titles like this has only him or herself to blame. These “peer-reviewed” papers apparently have no peer review, depending on your interpretation of peer. One could interpret “peer” in such a way as to make all of us peers (i.e., micturators). Anyone who is hiring a scientist should give credence only to journals which are known to be reliable, even if not widely read (such as our own Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science and Oklahoma Native Plant Record). You cannot distinguish between real and bogus publishers by asking whether they charge a fee to the author; nearly all journals have “page charges.” Occasionally even the most prestigious journals publish articles that turn out to be hoaxes (such as the work of Woo-suk Hwang) or the work of scientists who jumped to conclusions a little too fast (such as the work of Felisa Wolfe-Simon).

Peer review (in the opinion of any of us who have had papers rejected) is frequently a capricious affair. But at least it is pretty good at catching fakes. I reviewed a paper for American Biology Teacher once that was plagiarized. Lazy plagiarists are often lazy in more than one way. In this case, the author cited articles that were not listed in the references. Fifteen seconds of work on a search engine showed me that the paper was plagiarized straight from the website of a conservation organization. I told the editor to contact the supervisor of the author. Now that I look back on it, I wonder if the paper was generated just to test the internal quality control of the journal review process.

So, go ahead and have a laugh at the articles published by bogus journals; and if you believe them, joke’s on you.

On a related note, I’m thinking about starting a journal called Zeitschrift für Recherches en las Ciencias Naturalistas. I only charge $10,000 per article. If you are interested in publishing there, let me know, and remember I’m a peer.

Thanks to my wife Lee who found this article link through the American Library Association. This post first appeared in the blog of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences.

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