ZBW MediaTalk

by Athanasios Mazarakis, Kaltrina Nuredini and Isabella Peters

In the summer, a piece called „Fake Science – Die Lügenmacher“ (“The Lie Creators”) aired on ARD, and it left a lasting impression on the scientific community. Dr Athanasios Mazarakis had already received one of countless invitations for publications.

Journal publication within one week?

One week for a journal publication. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Or maybe it would be a nightmare? Prof. Dr Isabella Peters and Dr Athanasios Mazarakis thought about this and decided: we’ll give it a try! They said it, and they did it. A paper was quickly fabricated with the Paper Generator SCIgen. After a few cosmetic changes, it was done: “Decoupling IPv7 from the Transistor in Operating Systems”. A true masterpiece! Now it was all about waiting

This procedure, as we describe it here, has already been successfully replicated several times (Simpson et al., 2014 (PDF); Stribling et al., 2015 (PDF); Mazières et al., 2015 (PDF). But does it really work as easily as was shown on TV? Does the science system really face a threat from irrelevant journal publications? The acknowledgement came the next day.

Like winning the lottery: publication without revision

The answer didn’t inspire much confidence, but we wanted to see where it would lead us. And the wait didn’t last long, either. Five days later came the following cheerful news.

Normally, a journal publication without revisions is like winning the lottery. But in this case? Without any sort of relevant review? You have to give any potential reviewers the benefit of the doubt that they may not be totally confident with the subject. And maybe the paper that we automatically generated is relevant after all? So we had it reviewed again: by the doctoral students of the Web Science working group, without telling them that it was a fake paper. They had a week to complete this task. Would they suss out the con?

The con is already noticeable when skim reading

Even when just skimming through, it is clear that the article has no content. All the doctoral students noticed this immediately. One doctoral student, Kaltrina Nuredini, even carried out a very conscientious and careful review spanning several pages. Here are their main points of criticism which every reviewer should have recognised:

  • There are a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes.
  • The structure of the article seems characteristic of a scientific article, but there is no central theme and it doesn’t go into much depth.
  • The content is not consistent.
  • None of the sources in the bibliography can be found.
  • The journal gives a high H Index at a journal level, but does not give the calculation formula. This is not therefore a mark of quality.

This is really not too difficult and is in fact as straightforward as can be for scientists. But now we wanted to take it as far as we could and get a free publication. Because we hadn’t talked about $150 before. On 27 August, after asking several questions, we finally received the following answer.

Immediately after that, we received the bill. Spending $75 on a spellchecker would certainly be a good investment. This is where we end our experiment. But not without realising that in this case, healthy common sense (review in a week?) and academic mistrust are grounds enough to not fall for a journal like this – and thus prevent a “real” publication or submission from doing so. Even the very unprofessional letters (no contact person is mentioned, gmail addresses and so on) do not point to a serious journal. It is sad that the TV reports do not seem to be the exception, but rather everyday reality.

Predatory Journals: How can they be recognised?

In the case considered here, the entire communication structure of the journal seemed rather amateurish. This may look different for other predatory journals, making it more difficult to detect the fraud in such cases. Missing or unprofessional and unthoughtful peer reviews are the final warning signal.

How can honest – and in particular inexperienced – researchers be protected from falling for suspect journals? In addition to the supervisors of doctoral students, libraries are also called for here. What can they do to provide orientation?

Libraries could also provide information and advice in this regard. A lot has happened in the aftermath of the wave that was created from the TV reports on predatory journals. This is why, for example, the ZB MED and the ZBW provide checklists and handouts on the topic. Among the university libraries, the University Library of the Technical University of Munich, the Saarland University and State Library (link in German) and the University Library of the Humboldt University of Berlin (link in German) provide informational pages on predatory journals. Recently, the Leibniz Association also published a handout (link in German) on the subject.

Dr Athanasios Mazarakis (research assistant and post-doctoral fellow), Kaltrina Nuredini (research assistant and doctoral candidate) and Prof. Dr Isabella Peters (professor), all three are members of the Web Science Research Group of the ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics

The ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics is the world’s largest research infrastructure for economic literature, online as well as offline.

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