'Fake' journals rob us of sound science
The Ottawa Citizen's paper on the biomechanics of how pigs fly was accepted for an OMICS biology conference scheduled for this summer. (MARK METCALFE/GETTY IMAGES)
Long before the term "fake news" barged into the popular lexicon, a niche version of it was quietly infecting the scientific community. It consisted of journals that published fact-bereft mush as legitimate research, assuming few would notice the absence of intellectual rigour or actual evidence.
Now, the Ottawa Citizen's Tom Spears reports, the publishers of these "predatory" journals, of which there are hundreds, have gone farther: they're running fake academic conferences.
Spears has long reported on companies such as OMICS International, which claim to subject submitted articles to scientific peer review, but don't. Instead, for a fee, they'll publish anything that sounds scientific. Spears has tested this by deliberately sending obviously fake papers to these journals, which have been eager to publish.
In the newest version of such scientific fraud, OMICS and at least one other company invite academics to submit papers for "official" conferences in various cities. If these were legitimate gatherings, tough peer review would occur, but instead, there's no verification of the research that is pitched. Spears submitted two fictional proposals for one conference: a paper on the biomechanics of how pigs fly and a piece claiming that birds live at the bottom of the ocean. The OMICS conference accepted both -- as long as the author paid $999 per paper.
Why does this sort of intellectual fraud matter to the public? The short answer is: because you end up paying for it.
You pay for it because some academics use these predatory journals and fake conferences to pad their résumés as they apply for jobs at universities and other research institutes. Tax money supports most such institutions, and fake science journals and conferences help less-than-stellar candidates establish credentials and perhaps earn tenure.
That's bad enough. Even worse is that a key part of our western intellectual heritage -- our devotion to scientific research and evidence -- is being undercut by unscrupulous firms that seek to profit from society's broad illiteracy about science. To most people, if it sounds scientific, it must be scientific. Fraudsters are faking us out easily.
Our prime minister rightly admires "evidence-based" programs. If the field of research is seeded with fraud, we'll quickly come to mistrust the science public policy relies on.
Some academics have begun trying to detect the "fake research" phenomenon, but what's needed is a Canada-wide effort to root it out. Boosting everyone's general scientific literacy would help, too.