Do you know the difference between mitochondria, cellular organisms that help metabolize what you eat and convert it into energy, and midi-chlorians, tiny life forms that allow Jedi warriors to use the Force?
The first are fact. The latter are only real on the big screen as a backstory device to explain supernatural forces in the “Star Wars” movies. Unfortunately, several peer reviewers did not know the difference. Four journals recently accepted a research paper that subbed “midi-chlorians” for “mitochondria” in text stolen from Wikipedia. To be fair, the “peer reviewers” in these cases were likely as fake as the midi-chlorians — and the research paper they appear in.
The paper, “Mitochondria: Structure, Function, and Clinical Relevance,” was a deliberate hoax perpetrated by Neuroskeptic. The British neuroscientist who blogs for Discover Magazine used the paper to expose predatory journals who will publish most anything for a fee. And this is not the first paper to sneak through the holes in the peer review process, whether a hoax or not. We discussed the problem in an earlier article, “Is ‘Fake News’ Creeping Into Academic Publishing?” So how does this happen — and how can publishers ensure the validity of the research they publish?
How is false research legitimized?
It isn’t. It just appears to be legitimate because it is published in a scientific journal that claims to be peer-reviewed. These predatory journals take advantage of researchers’ and academics’ needs to publish their work. And these predatory publishers exploit that need by charging sometimes exorbitant fees to accept and publish authors’ works. That’s certainly not to say all the studies they publish are fake, but they often have not undergone the rigorous peer review process that is the foundation of academic publishing. But the fault can also sometimes be laid at the feet of researchers, as some exploit these predatory journals to inflate their publication credits to get jobs or promotions.
These practices can undermine the credibility of academic publishing. And the shift toward open access publishing will likely make the problem worse before it gets better. So, what can publishers do to detect poor research or deliberately faked studies and protect their reputations and the reputation of academic publishing as a whole?
Guarding against fake news and poor research
Although the “Star Wars” paper is an exaggerated example of false science, it does point out the problems academic publishers face today. Fake or poor research isn’t always this obvious and even respected scientists can sometimes be duped. One respected academic was invited to join the board of a scientific journal only to discover several of his colleagues had also accepted positions on that board, leading him to realize it was a way for a predatory journal to appear legit.
Although publishers may not be qualified to judge the credibility of research papers, they can make sure the research is properly vetted through qualified peer reviewers. They can also use their knowledge of the scientific process to assess the logical structure of the arguments put forth in the paper.
Publishers should also be wary of results that seem too good to be true or appear highly controversial. But never forget that a lot of important, ground-breaking discoveries were exactly that when they were first put forth. Currently, the best way to validate such research is through robust peer-review systems. Journal publishers should police themselves by exposing predatory or unscrupulous publishers who lower the overall credibility of scholarly publishing. Publishers also need to ensure their own publishing and vetting processes are transparent.
Researchers and journal contributors also have roles to play in preventing the distribution of poor or false research. They need to carefully select the recipients of their papers, ensuring that they are legitimate publishers .
There’s no denying that we live in an era of “fake news.” The internet has made it incredibly easy to spread false stories and information, making it difficult to discern what’s real and what’s false. Those in the scientific publishing community have an obligation to protect the value of the information they provide.
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