It’s a well-known fact that many great minds of bench and bar know less about science than the average 3rd-grader. But they do know that if a testifying expert has written “peer-reviewed articles” this guarantees against junk science as surely as garlic fends off vampires. Or does it?
A sting operation by Science magazine recently exposed a worldwide scam whereby journals with impressive-sounding titles – – usually some combination of “International,” “Academy,” “Institute,” “Medical,” “Scientific” or “Research,” with a specialized term such as “Pharmaceutical,” “Neuroscience” or “Polymer” thrown in — offer peer-reviewed publication for a hefty fee. Many of these “predatory open access journals,” while using the names of eminent scholars and institutions, emanate from fake addresses, non-existent editorial boards and “a network of bank accounts based mostly in the developing world.”
In Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Science magazine’s crack investigative reporter John Bohannon relates how he wrote up the results of a fictitious study purporting to demonstrate the cancer-inhibiting properties of lichen. “The goal was to create a credible but mundane scientific paper,” he writes, but “with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable.” With the help of molecular biologists from Harvard, he made sure that the flaws would be both obvious and “boringly bad,” lest his made-up data be so weird as to suggest “the glimmer of a scientific breakthrough.”
The “author” of this baited paper was Ocorrafoo Cobange of the non-existent Wassee Institute of Medicine, purportedly located in Asmara, Eritrea. Informed by his Harvard advisors that a paper in flawlessly idiomatic English would raise suspicions, Bohannon achieved the authentic prose style of imported-electronics instruction books by translating the paper into French and back into English, using Google Translate.
Bohannon/Cobange sent the bogus paper to 304 journals that touted their scientific credentials and fee-based peer review. The overwhelming majority accepted it, clearly without any scientific review. Only 36 journals recognized that the study was inherently flawed, but 16 of them accepted the paper anyway.
On learning that it was a sting, the European Journal of Chemistry for one was outraged, protesting that it had a right to take the author’s word for it that “your supplied information is correct.” The Kobe Journal of Medical Sciences sniffed that its letter of acceptance “has no effect whatsoever.”
The Journal of International Medical Research, having responded with a letter of acceptance and an invoice for $3100, acknowledged the egg on its face but suggested that this attack on peer non-review was a Western colonialist conspiracy. “An element of trust must necessarily exist in research including that carried out in disadvantaged countries, ” scolded the Editor-in-Chief. “Your activities here detract from that trust.”
So next time you get an expert’s c.v. with 40 pages of publications in “peer-reviewed” journals – check them out on Scholarly Open Access, a website and blog reviewing “potential, possible, or probable predatory” publishers. Meanwhile, it’s good to know that law isn’t the only profession where “review” can be nothing but a lowdown scam.
P.S. For Hitler’s take on peer review, see http://chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/adolph-hitler-runs-into-peer-review-again-and-again-and-again/29457