Fake news was a real problem in 2020. It’s been one of the most hotly debated issues on the American scene and beyond for several years. Concerns about misinformation in politics, science, and society are high, and it’s not just the nightly news or our social media feeds that should worry us. This phenomenon is also alive and well in the academic publishing sector. Today, for every 10,000 papers on PubMed, 2.5 are retracted—the majority due to misconduct, according to a recent study. How will this affect your business and the world at large?
Sowing the seeds of doubt
In a defining moment for shoddy scientific assumptions, British physician Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues published a now-infamous article in 1998 suggesting that vaccines may cause autism in children. The many flaws in the research included a small sample size and speculative conclusions that made for some wild assumptions and led to the “anti-vaxxer” movement. Despite multiple epidemiological studies refuting the link later on, the seed of doubt had been planted.
But it took an even more outrageous undertaking to expose the risks of fake news on our most trusted academic journals. In 2018 three academic authors revealed that they had spent the prior 12 months writing and submitting 20 fake papers “using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions.” Seven of the 20 papers were published in peer-reviewed journals. Seven were still under review when the hoax became public. Only six papers had been rejected. This mirrored the so-called Sokol hoax from 1990 when a New York University professor published what The Atlantic called “jabber” and “deliberate gibberish” — or nonsensical academic jargon that made fun of the scientific method.
The problem is that these examples only create additional fodder for anti-science refutations of genuine environmental or public health crises such as climate change and COVID-19.
Junk science—not an oxymoron
While junk science sounds like an oxymoron, one professor sounded the alarm recently about an increase in shady operations masquerading as real publishers. These unscrupulous publishers accept almost every submission and skip the peer review process. For the first time in history, publishers are sending out more flawed or fraudulent studies to an unsuspecting public. One scholar says, “There’s never been a worst time to be a scientist.”
If you consider how some politicians have suppressed information about COVID rates, you realize there is a segment of U.S. influencers firmly entrenched in the pursuit of fake science for their own gains. Academic journals still offer a rigorous peer review and editing process, but the proliferation of open access journals with lax practices opened the door to junk science entering the mainstream. The emerging author-pay model drove profits, and the more papers published, the more money they generated—many times with the aid of government research grants. The next iteration was almost inevitable: predatory publishers, masquerading as real scientific journals, began to appear.
Why stopping fake academic publishing is critically important
While there are well-known questionable publications out there, it was the mixture of falsified data that led to the “science” further politicizing and weaponizing the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. Shortly after, agrochemical giant Monsanto was held accountable in 2018 for its funding of junk studies to discredit the link between cancer and the Roundup herbicide product.
Canadian politics and culture magazine The Walrus noted that increasingly, “journalists, politicians, and the general public are … relying on fraudulent and flawed research to guide major decisions.” Long-suspected offender OMICS is just one example of fake academic publishing, cropping up under a variety of names such as Andrew John Publishing, iMedPub, and Pulsus Group.
But there is a new set of tools deployed recently to help academic communities fight back. In addition to the established Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Cabell’s International now has a journal whitelist of 11,000 legitimate publications along with a blacklist of 8,000 fake publishers. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has lent a hand by filing lawsuits against OMICS and other groups. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned companies and individuals about spreading fake news regarding COVID-19. Even social media giants and the scientists themselves are getting out on the front lines to counteract misinformation. While it will take a concerted effort moving forward, there are powerful allies teaming up with the publishing industry in the effort to battle fake research.
Contact your Sheridan or KGL representative for a consultation or visit our contact pages ( Sheridan contact page / KGL contact page ) to learn how we can help streamline and simplify your publishing processes.