Fictional "Dr Fraud" Tricks Her Way Onto Pseudo-Journals' Editorial Boards

Not being a real person is apparently no obstacle to being on the editorial board of some suspect pseudo-journals. Pumpuija/Shutterstock

Here's a great way to polish your CV. Get yourself on the board of a peer-reviewed journal. A real journal like Science or Cell might be hard, but conveniently plenty of fake journals exist. If you think even they might not want someone still in high school or doing an undergraduate degree, think again; almost 50 journals jumped at the chance to have someone called “Dr Fraud” on their board.

People have demonstrated how low the standards of so-called predatory journals are by such stunts as getting a paper published that simply consisted of the words “Get me off your fucking mailing list” repeated 863 times.

Dr Katarzyna Pisanski of the University of Sussex decided just getting a paper in a predatory journal was too easy, so she sent requests to be on their editorial boards under the pseudonym Anna O. Szust. One might not expect the journals to know enough Polish to realize Szust means fraud, but a reputable journal might possibly have bothered to check this person's (flimsy) qualifications, or even that she existed.

In Nature (definitely not predatory), Pisanski reports that of 120 journals chosen from librarian Jeffrey Beall's now deleted list of predatory journals, 40 approved Szust within days. Eight of 120 randomly chosen from the Directory of Open Access Journals did the same. None from a control group of reputable journals fell for the scam. Some predatory journals even instructed their new board member that her job was to find paying authors but not to check the quality of their work.

As a system of knowledge that prioritizes evidence over gut feeling, science relies on testing. But how can you tell whether something has been properly tested? There's no perfect answer, but a key part is peer review. To get published in a peer-reviewed journal, research has to go through a level of checking by other scientists in the field.

It's not a perfect system – sometimes work that is badly flawed or missing evidence gets published, and sometimes theories that really shake up a discipline get rejected many times before they finally get through. Still, it's a lot better than anything anyone else has proposed.

Consequently, predatory journals, publications that claim to be peer reviewed, but aren't, are a real threat. For a fee, they'll let anyone publish anything. The scam allows scientists going for jobs to make it look like they have a very impressive publishing record, and those pushing a completely discredited theory to appear credible. When that theory is climate denial or anti-vaccination claims the cost may come in human lives.

Like fake news, no one has really worked out how to fight predatory journals effectively, but just making people aware of their nature probably helps.

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