Normally, the discovery of a potential new treatment for cancer would be considered good news; but when the study conducted on the substance is fake, and deeply flawed because it is meant to raise the eyebrows of, and be rejected by science journals, and it is still accepted for publication, the credibility of the peer review process comes under scrutiny.
In an article published by Science magazine, John Bohannon details how he sent deeply flawed studies with false data to 304 purported open access scientific journals. Not only that; but he sent them under the names of fictitious researchers at made-up universities in order to not give himself away by sending the same manuscript to all the journals he targeted in his investigation. He found that many of these journals were willing to publish his paper as long as he paid a fee. Some asked for minor changes, such as a different format or presentation of the data, longer abstracts, etc.; but did not criticize the bunk science behind the study.
Bohannon decided to proceed with this course of action after investigating one particular publisher, and finding out that one of its reviewers had only been asked to peruse one paper in the four years that she has been listed as being affiliated with the journal. Moreover, she asked for that study to be rejected for publication, and yet the manuscript was given the green light by the journal’s editorial staff. After that, the reviewer asked to have her name removed from the journal’s masthead, and yet, she is still listed as a reviewer for that journal.
Bohannon then wrote the paper he was going to use as bait, with huge flaws in the data he falsified, for example, the treatments that were being tested were only applied to cancerous cells, so that if they were also toxic to healthy cells, that would nullify their medicinal usefulness; however, the fictional study did not explore this possibility.
In order to not give himself away, Bohannon did not submit the same study to all the “scientific journals” he targeted. Instead, he replaced the names of different lichens, their extracts, different types of cancers, and different researcher and university names in each submission. Many feel as though his last step was unnecessary, really, as the publishers should have rejected the manuscript on the basis of the bunk science behind it alone in order to maintain their credibility. Also, a big red flag that calls for more scrutiny is that neither the researchers, nor the universities where they conducted the supposed studies exist, and a simple Google search would have revealed that fact.
When examining an issue such as this, we must explore its root causes as well, and one of the main ones, according to the interactive map that Bohannon’s investigation generated is that in India, in particular, professional scientists are under a lot of pressure to publish research in order to get coveted jobs or promotions, and most of these so-called journals that bypass the peer review process in exchange for money are based there.
So why does any of this matter? After all, why should we care about nerds reading research papers written by other nerds? It matters because the nerds supposed to be reading the papers are not actually reading them, and that leads to bunk science being accepted at face value by your insurance company, your doctor, and your lawmakers, even though in many cases it is deeply flawed. That is how charlatans can convince you, for example, that common vaccines are giving your children autism, a “fact” of which there is absolutely no convincing scientific proof, and which leads to outbreaks of disease that should long ago have been eradicated by now, such as the whooping cough outbreak that occurred in 2010 (the largest in California since 1947,) or the more recent measles outbreak in Texas just last month.
In addition, most of us have no use for such scientific studies in our daily lives; but snake oil salesmen constantly try to hijack the peer review process to try to sell us sham cures for people that are so desperately holding onto life that they are basically grasping at any straw offered to them. Also, scientific studies are constantly being used as guide rails for policy within the medical establishment and government. It behooves us, collectively, to make sure such academic papers are held to the same high standard as laws are, because they just might become law.
There are safeguards against such unscrupulous publishers, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) started by Lars Bjørnshauge, a library scientist at Lund University in Sweden, which aims to list credible scientific journals, and a list compiled by Jeffrey Beall, library scientist at the University of Colorado, with the objective of discrediting scientific journals that aim to publish any studies without first reviewing them as long as the authors of the “scientific papers” can pay the corresponding fees.
Unfortunately, Bohannon’s investigation found that there is some overlap between those two lists. This should serve as a caveat to all persons with a critical mind that the peer review process is being compromised, and it is wise to scrutinize carefully everything one reads even if it is published in a “scientific journal” functioning under the thinnest veneer of credibility.
By Milton Ruiz