Hoax academic articles, media meddling, and problems with 'open access' as it exists.

Hoax academic articles, media meddling, and problems with 'open access' as it exists.

Some recent hoax articles are demonstrating the flaws in the control of information and particularly academic publishing. A recent hoax demonstrates that, so long as you are willing to pay, you can get anything published, even computer generated mumbo-jumbo. And if you can't pay, you either don't publish, or the company owns the product of your labour. Open access isn't as open as it seems.

Not quite as lol-worthy as the 'Sokal hoax' but certainly a nice effort is the story of a recent hoax paper submitted to, and accepted, by an open-access information science journal. A graduate student at Cornell University submitted a computer-generated nonsensical article to The Open Information Science Journal after getting unsolicited email for the publisher, Bentham Science Publishers. The paper was called 'Deconstructing Access Points'.

New Scientist covers the story and the paper's author, Philip Davis, details it at his blog. What's apparent from the abstract onwards, is that it's incomprehensible tripe, and the author's institutional affiliation, Center for Research in Applied Phrenology, or CRAP, should have been a dead giveaway - not only because of the acronym, but a discredited 19th century practice of examining head-bumps has nothing to do with anything alluded to in the paper or the academic field in which the journal is situated.

The paper was accepted, and Davis was asked to pay $800 for it's publication, which he declined - having made his point, he withdrew the paper. The thing is, an earlier attempt at a bogus paper, by the same author and to another Bentham-owned journal, had been rejected, so the acceptance of the paper in question can't merely be attributed to a scam publication simply taking money to publish crap, given they do actually reject some papers.

There's actually a serious point to be made about how profit motives in research, and in particular, charging for authors to publish academic research means that any old crap will be accepted, as long as people can pay the often hefty author fees. Though many scientists and academics see open-access as a positive development, meaning they can communicate their research with a wider audience, for free, via the internet (rather than through expensive subscription journals), most open-access publication charge hefty fees for authors. The problems with the open-access platform as it exists under a profit-driven model, are apparent when you consider that some of the best known open-access journals, such as PLoS One, charge high author fees ($1250) and do 'light peer-review' (which means examining methodological flaws but not the relevance or importance of papers. Such bulk-publishing, at a price, and with a high-acceptance rate, keeps the businesses afloat (Nature).

PLoS One was the journal at the centre of the recent media frenzy over the 47mil-year-old 'Ida' fossil primate, found in Messel, Germany.
While the fossil was universally described as an incredible and remarkably complete find, the methods in which its find was unveiled to the world set a new precedent in the corporate media courting of scientific research. Before the paper had even been published, several TV channels (inc. BBC, and History Channel) had their documentaries lined-up, a book was available pre-order, and science journalists had been forced to sign 'secrecy' contracts just to get a look at the fossil and interview the researchers involved.

In the original paper, the authors declared 'no competing interests', despite knowing TV companies and book publishers were involved in almost every step of the find. When a skeptical science writer, Carl Zimmer, queried this, the journal was forced to include an addendum with regard to the relative 'interests':
“The authors wish to declare, for the avoidance of any misunderstanding concerning competing interests, that a production company (Atlantic Productions), several television channels (History Channel, BBC1, ZDF, NRK) and a book publisher (Little Brown and co) were involved in discussions regarding this paper in advance of publication. However, to clarify, none of the authors received any financial benefit from any of these associations and these organizations had no influence over the publication of this paper or the science contained within it. The Natural History museum in Oslo will receive some royalty from sales of the book, but no revenue accrues to any of the scientists. In addition, the Natural History Museum of Oslo purchased the fossil that is examined in this paper, however, this purchase in no way influenced the publication of this paper or the science contained within it, and in no way benefited the individual authors.”

This of course had no bearing on the quality of the fossil, by all accounts of people who work in the field of paleontology it's an astonishing find, and the unique nature of the Messel Pit means it will provide many more incredibly well-preserved fossils. What did piss scientists off though, was the sheer hype around the find, and the cynical timing of the TV and book industries involvement. The choice of the PLoS One journal, which is certainly a highly regarded and reputable journal, was also deliberately chosen because of its comparatively 'light' review process, as opposed to other high-impact subscription journals, such as Science or Nature. The fossil itself hadn't actually been 'found' by the researchers, it had been sitting in a private collection since the 1980s.

Another issue some scientists and writers pointed out, that the hype surrounding the 'missing link' Ida was proposed to be, misrepresented the nature of the fossil record, and of evolutionary relationships - it gives the impression of evolution as a linear process, a 'great chain of being', just waiting for that 'missing link' to be filled. Other reports hailed the find as 'teh f1Nal Ev1d3ncE of Ev0Lut1on!1!!!1!', as if it was on shaky ground prior to the find. Carl Zimmer writes again, "If the world goes crazy for a lovely fossil, that’s fine with me. But if that fossil releases some kind of mysterious brain ray that makes people say crazy things and write lazy articles, a serious swarm of flies ends up in my ointment."

Media hype aside, charging for authorship is common in open-access. If you want your work open and accessible for free to the public, you have to pay for it. You can avoid these fees, by signing away your copyright, and thus control over what you have laboured to produce. I've just had my first foray into the academic publishing game, and it was an eye-opener. Going in wide-eyed, with a first article accepted, and thinking 'yes, this article is interesting and people will want to read it, it should be free and accessible to all, no fancy journal subscriptions!1!!!'. But no, to have this 'open-access' and freely available I would have to pay $3000, which I don't have. So, unable to pay for that, and unlikely to get my department to do so, I signed away control to the publishing company, Springer. Of course, having copyright doesn't interest me, I don't want to 'own' this research, but it raises problems over where authors, the creators of this work, can share and distribute their own work. Authors are not allowed to host a pdf file on their own website, or say, a blog, until 12mths after the date of publication.

Challenging the 'pay-to-play' ethos of much of the academic publishing world, particularly those that spam potential contributors for their pay-to-publish articles, drove some genius authors to write this piece of work: 'Get me off your fucking mailing list'.

Outside of open-access, and in the traditional subscription-based journal world, it recently emerged that Elsevier, a big-name academic publisher, has SIX industry-sponsored medical journals, on its roster, all essentially long adverts, in the form of positive journal articles, for drugs owned by the companies that run the journals. Essentially, these are 'fake' journals, claiming to be objective and interested only in the evidence-base of the research contained, but in actuality, controlled directly by pharmaceutical companies.

Under capitalism we'll never really have a truly open and accessible information and research community. Even the moves toward opening-up access to research findings are as fraught with problems of control and ownership as the traditional subscription-based research publications. Open access isn't as open as I thought.

Posted By

Jun 11 2009 17:02


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Jun 11 2009 19:48

wow that sucks, i didn't realise that was the case at all. $3000 is unbelievable!

however. i enjoyed this grin

Jun 11 2009 21:22

yeah that was pretty sweet smile
Note: edited title cos the media and 'Ida' formed a bigger part than I'd imagined.

Jun 12 2009 15:51

I thought PLoS was OK, better than others because it's in part publicly funded.

Maybe it's time for academics to organise ourselves and set up a publishing system we control ourselves? With free software and internet technologies like P2P it should be possible to do this for very cheap - use P2P to distribute pdfs and get people in your field to review and comment on your articles. Use some clever algorithm that calculates a rating of your paper from the balance of comments (and the trustworthiness of the commenters) that would become the equivalent of a journal's citation index.

Jun 12 2009 15:59

Oh I'm not saying PLoS is bad, I think it's great that the articles are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and I've got articles from it myself.

But I think they high author fees paces restrictions on who gets to publish, and what gets researched.

I think charging authors for the 'privelege' of publishing is rediculous.

Jun 13 2009 17:41
Choccy wrote:
But I think they high author fees paces restrictions on who gets to publish, and what gets researched.

I think charging authors for the 'privelege' of publishing is rediculous.

Yeah sure it's ridiculous, but I guess capitalism is like that. Somebody's got to pay for editorial work such as eliminating hoaxes etc. and if it's to be open access, then this will probably be the authors. Unless researchers self-organise and set up a system for publication themselves.

Also, PLoS say they will waive the $2000 fee for people who can't afford it as they are committed making sure the fee is not a barrier to publication.

Jun 13 2009 18:03

I'd be curious how often that happens, given it's author fees that in their own admission, keeps them afloat nowadays.

Also, the wider problem I highlighted is that charging authors is common in open-access, and the option to waive fees, means publishers controlling the work in its entirety, thus authors can't even post the articles on their own sites/blogs etc from fixed periods. I think this is problematic in and of itself.