If you’re up to date on the latest science news, you’ll know that Dr. Lucas McGeorge and Dr. Annette Kin have been busy in the lab this year, perfecting their groundbreaking study on midi-chlorians. Their paper, “Mitochondria: Structure, Function, and Clinical Relevance,” is about Star Wars’ midi-chlorians, the microscopic organisms flowing through the blood of any entity that’s sensitive to the Force.
Somehow, that paper managed to get through the supposedly stringent peer-review process of multiple academic journals and onto the internet.
Pseudonymous science blogger Neuroskeptic wrote the farcical paper to prove a point: That not all academic journals are to be trusted. Neuroskeptic submitted the paper to journals known in the scientific community for spamming scientists with submission requests, publishing without adequate peer review, and charging exorbitant publishing fees. These journals are often referred to as “predatory” and have been targeted with similar stings in the recent past, including one involving a study on a fictional disease from Seinfeld.
These predatory, for-profit science journals fell into the trap of publishing a spoof scientific study full of errors, plagiarism, and even “The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise.”
Neuroskeptic’s paper was accepted by four different academic journals: American Journal of Medical and Biological Research (which accepted it but didn’t publish it after Neuroskeptic didn’t pay the $360 fee), International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access, Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and American Research Journal of Biosciences. Two of the journals, International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access and Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, have deleted the paper from their sites but haven’t issued retraction notices. The links go to cached versions of the papers.
While the sting may be funny, it also highlights a problem that many scientists worry about.
“The scientific community needs to be vigilant in understanding the practices of some entities that advertise themselves as legitimate peer review journals, yet do not uphold appropriate standards,” Darren Taichman, Executive Deputy Editor of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, told Retraction Watch, a blog that follows retractions and academic misconduct.
The peer review process ensures that new scientific studies are based on sound science and contribute something relevant to the field. Researchers depend on this process to produce reliable work. When it breaks down, the academic literature becomes harder to wade through, and it’s difficult for academics and members of the public to separate trash from legit science.
What’s more, predatory journals often fly under the radar, with many researchers publishing in their pages. Thompson Rivers University economics professor Derek Pyne told Retraction Watch that many of his tenured colleagues have published in predatory journals. He even unwittingly became an editorial board member of a predatory journal once, fooled by their request and application that seemed convincingly rigorous. “However, when I discovered that two other people in my department had also been appointed, I realized that something was wrong,” he told Retraction Watch.
This is one way these journals make themselves appear legit: They have editorial boards composed of respected researchers. Pyne finally got his name off, though. Many other researchers aren’t as savvy, though, and unwittingly support predatory academic publishers. At least Lucas McGeorge can’t be embarrassed.