Fake academic papers

This story from theguardian.com (26th February 2014) begins as follows:

Three MIT graduate students wanted to expose how dodgy scientific conferences pestered researchers for papers, and accepted any old rubbish sent in, knowing that academics would stump up the hefty, till-ringing registration fees.

It took only a handful of days. The students wrote a simple computer program that churned out gobbledegook and presented it as an academic paper. They put their names on one of the papers, sent it to a conference, and promptly had it accepted. The sting, in 2005, revealed a farce that lay at the heart of science.

I struggle with this concept. Certainly, dodgy conferences and journals exist: I receive at least one email a week from someone asking me to chair a session at a plausible-sounding meeting or submit an article to a special journal issue on a topic of my choice, always with a profit motive. However, my institution is heavily reliant upon highly competitive research funding and runs on a shoestring, so is extremely careful about approving expensive conference travel. Our plane-happy senior researchers choose their meetings very carefully; they don’t have time to attend worthless meetings. Meanwhile, junior researchers compete for a few conference scholarships, which are awarded to those who will present the best research at the best conferences. I don’t know who is paying those “hefty, till-ringing registration fees” to attend dodgy conferences, but it’s certainly not anyone from the Burnet Institute, and I’m confident that very few other Australian research institutions are.

Similarly, I’ve paid to have only two manuscripts published in journals over the past 25 years, both times because the journal was a prestigious one (and happened to apply printing charges – few do) and the manuscripts described the most important aspects of those research projects. Why would anyone pay to publish decent work in a low-impact (or no-impact, if really dodgy) journal which wouldn’t get them any meaningful coverage or kudos in their discipline? Moreover, I had to revise each manuscript extensively to comply with very insightful and comprehensive comments from reviewers – hardly the kind of “prompt acceptance” described in the Guardian story.

Campbell Aitken

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