Despite recent media brouhaha, fake news is not new. In fact, fake research has a history of surfacing in scientific publishing. How and why does that happen?
A world of fake news
According to Syracuse University’s Media, Law & Policy, “Today’s fake news is aimed at persuading people to adopt a particular point of view—or reinforcing that view—through deliberate lies and manipulation.” One of the most well-known cases of fake research in scholarly publishing occurred more than 20 years ago when New York University Physicist Alan Sokal tried to prove that postmodern ways of thinking in the humanities have made it impossible to distinguish academic sense from nonsense. He did this by attempting to publish a “hoax” paper in an important scientific journal. It was an experiment to determine whether the journal would publish an article filled with nonsense — fake news — if it sounded legitimate and complimented the editors’ ideologic notions. It did.
Other examples of fake news include 19th century yellow journalism, which mixed fact with folly to earn a profit; supermarket tabloids that have been spreading fake or exaggerated news to loyal subscribers for decades; and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which showed how easy it was to dupe the American people, playing into the population’s fear of alien life by adding theatrics and suspense.
What’s peer review got to do with it?
One area of scholarly publishing that is vulnerable to fraudulence is peer review. A stunning example of this occurred in 2015.
BioMed Central, a major U.K. medical and science publisher, retracted 43 papers because of faked peer reviews, and there have been signs of a broader fake peer review impacting many more publications. The co-editors of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks scientific research integrity, counted a total of 170 retractions over the past few years because of false peer reviews. These integrity breaches hurt not only publishers and authors’ reputations but also the scientific publishing community as a whole.
Avoid fake research
Publishers and editors need to be watchful of fraudulent peer reviews as well as inaccurate data reporting or downright lies. To discern fake news:
- Read the entire article — not just the headline.
- Look at some of the author’s other works. Does the paper sound like it’s written by the same author?
- Does the author show bias in choice of language and point of view?
- Does the author name all sources of information and their credentials? Are they qualified to talk on the topic?
- Does the research support multiple perspectives and viewpoints?
- Does other research support the paper’s conclusions?
- Use fact-checking services such as snopes.com or factcheck.org
It is unfortunate that the competitive nature of academic publishing and the desire for personal gain opens up the real possibility of scientific fraud and fake research. As gatekeepers for disseminating research findings, publishers must be vigilant. Pay-to-publish models, by their nature, are especially prone to fake news, and the scientific community must work together with publishers to ensure the threat of fake news and faulty science does not taint or have a dampening effect on scientific publishing.
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