The peer-review system is a process used to weed out weak scientific research using independent peers to check whether the study is legit, credible, and of decent quality. But recent years have seen a rise in so-called “predatory journals”, where it’s significantly easier to get past the reviewing process and have research quickly published (often for a small price, of course).
To highlight the flaws of “predatory journals”, a blogging neuroscientist writing under the alias Neuroskeptic managed to trick multiple scientific journals into publishing a nonsensical piece of research, dotted with massive factual errors, plagiarism, and Star Wars references. Neuroskeptic wrote about his “experiment” in a blog post for Discover Magazine.
The hoax study was all about “midi-chlorians,” a fiction form of “microscopic life form that resides within all living cells” that was first mentioned in everybody’s favorite Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace.
Submitted under the names Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin, the study at one point, embedded in "science" jargon, says: “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? I thought not. It is not a story the Jedi would tell you. It was a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life.”
Four journals fell for the sting. The garbage was published in the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access, Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, and the American Research Journal of Biosciences. The American Journal of Medical and Biological Research accepted the paper, however, they asked for a $360 fee, which the author declined to pay.
This is not the first time (and probably won’t be the last time) a journal has fallen for a set-up. Earlier this year, a fake scientist called Anna O Szust (“Oszust” meaning “a fraud” in Polish) managed to get on the editorial board of dozens of academic journals, despite not even having any qualifications. A separate “experiment” saw an open-access journal publish a case report on a fictional disease taken from an episode of Seinfeld.
The shady practices of “predatory journals” is the dark side of open-access journals. In the widest sense, open-access means that you and I can read research online without having to pay a hefty subscription fee to the journal. Since they don’t rely on a paywall to generate income, they often ask for researchers to pay a fee to publish. With the rise of the Internet, the open-access movement has gained momentum, with more journals seeing this model as a more democratic way to spread knowledge and the fruits of research.
However, as Neuroskeptic’s antics have highlighted once more, this idealistic system can be exploited.