Science Is Ignoring its “Publication Pollution” Problem

In a damning op-ed published Friday, Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, called out scientists who are turning a blind eye to the scientific publishing industry’s “publication pollution problem.” At the root of the matter: pay-to-publish journals with weak or nonexistent pre-publication review standards that are “corroding the reliability of research.” As he wrote in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy.” 

Consider this recent experiment, as described in the commentary:

Harvard researcher Mark Shrime recently wrote an article entitled Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?: The Surgical and Neoplastic Role of Cacao Extract in Breakfast Cereals.The fake authors he chose for the piece were Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles. Shrime submitted this fake article to 37 journals. At last count, 17 had accepted the obviously phony, nonsensical paper. John Bohannon did the same thing with a completely phony paper, with even more depressing results in terms of peer reviewed acceptance to journals. The journals that took these gibberish-laden, concocted articles were scam, author-must-pay, profit driven entities that nevertheless have every appearance of being legitimate journals.

“Predatory publishers” create a seeming win-win situation: the publisher makes money and the author gets a journal article published—currency in the world of science and academia. The result?

Predatory, pay-to-publish, non-peer-reviewed journals flood disciplines with bad or fake science, making it hard, much as light pollution does, to see the real stars. Worse, publication pollution lessons the impact of legitimate science in the formation of public policy, undermining public health, weakening the overall value of legitimate publications in influencing policy, and creating opportunities for the continued power of crackpot views that corrode many areas of public life, such as vaccination, fluoridation, and the prevention and treatment of diseases, such as autism, AIDS, and cancer.

Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado librarian who wrote a similar op-ed in Nature in 2012, estimates these publishers make up a whopping 25 percent of all open-source journals. Beall maintains an ongoing list of “potential, possible, and probable” predatory publishers on his website, Scholarly Open Access. He’s identified over 1,300 such publishers and journals to date.