Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Decadent Science: Does fake differ from genuine? If so, how?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/04/24

“Fake, deceptive, predatory Science Journals and Conferences”  describes conferences and journals whose organizers and publishers have no background of involvement with actual scientific work or institutions; they are parasitic, in it only for the money. The racket is very successful because many researchers find themselves fooled, unable to distinguish fake from genuine — because the purpose of “genuine” as well as “fake” is status-enhancement and profit-making rather than truth-seeking and intellectual intercourse.

Consider conferences. On several counts, the parasitic ones are not readily distinguishable from traditional mainstream conferences, certainly not at first sight. Receiving an announcement or invitation to attend, one would first look at who is on the organizing committee, and if they or the keynote speakers are prominent senior researchers, one presumes that this is a regular scientific conference. But the predatory conferences could pass muster on those counts. Spend a bit of time checking names at the parasitic conferences organized by Omics Group (“Accelerating Scientific Discovery”), BIT Life Sciences (“Your Think Tank”), or Eureka Science  or Eureka Conference. You find some very well known names among the speakers and committee members, including quite a few Nobel Laureates: Karl Barry Sharpless,   Robert Huber, Jean-Marie Lehn, Hartmut Michel, Ferid Murad, Avram Hershko, Luc Montagnier, Richard J. Roberts, Rulf M. Zinkernagel.

Some of the predatory conferences have registration fees of several hundred dollars ($600-$700 for Academic Journals & Conferences), not out of line with “genuine” conferences like those of the International AIDS Society whose 2013 get-together lists registration fees  of $440 and $680 for middle/low and high-income countries respectively. The for-profit BIT’s conferences are a bit more pricey, for example $1400 for speakers and $1500 for others,  and Eureka Conferences also have rather high fees of $990 for academics and $1690 for speakers from corporations. These higher fees are indeed clues to the nature of these conferences, and what’s really suspicious with Eureka is to see the same fees listed for “Invited Speakers”; I’ve never elsewhere experienced registration fees being charged to invited speakers, typically all their other expenses are also borne by the conference. Nevertheless, just the high registration fees are unlikely to outweigh the validating presence of Nobel Prize winners

Why do senior, distinguished people including Nobel Laureates accept invitations from these for-profit entities? I suppose they ask themselves, “Why not spend a bit of time in an interesting place like Dubai, or an enjoyable city like Boston?” After all, no matter how high the registration fees, it all comes free from one’s grants even if it doesn’t come from the conference organizers.
Then too, if you’ve had a distinguished career, you owe it to the next generations to let them hear you and meet you. On the other hand, if you’re on the way up — which entails having grant funds to pay for conference junkets — then associating with those VIPs can only help.

That academics have become accustomed to perpetual global junketing was noted several decades ago already by David Lodge in Small World: An Academic Romance, a novel first published in 1984 and remaining so pertinent that it was brought back into print in 1995 and remains up-to-date even now.

At any rate, no matter the motives of the participants, there’s ample evidence that many conferences organized by non-scientific for-profit groups have attracted sufficiently large attendances to keep the rackets flourishing. And that speaks volumes for what goes on in science nowadays. Desperate and impassioned pleas for more research support are heard routinely, yet there seems to be no shortage of funds for high-priced global junketing and for publishing useless trivia.

For example, consider the International AIDS Conferences. What purpose do they serve?
“The XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012)  was held from 22 to 27 July 2012 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C., USA. and convened more than 23,000 participants from 183 countries, including almost 2,000 journalists. The conference was organized by the International AIDS Society in collaboration with its international and local partners.”
One clue to the purpose may be the prominence of drug companies as sponsors and providers of tote bags and other trivia bearing the sponsor’s name. Conference exhibitions also feature the sponsors’ wares.

When commercialism is so rife at conferences organized by academic or professional societies, the presence of commercialism is not a sufficient clue by which to diagnose predatory conferences organized by for-profit entrepreneurs.

Fake publishing thrives because lists of publications have become the sine qua non of an academic career. So for academics at early stages of their career, one of the desirable perks of some of these dubious “conferences” is that the presented papers are then “published” in “journals” put out by the conference organizers. Look into the Curriculi Vitae (CVs, résumés) of some of the less senior Board Members  at Academic Journals & Conferences, for example, and note how prominently their lists of publications include pieces in its proprietary predatory journals.
[I had consulted my Latin dictionary to make sure I knew the plural of “curriculum”, and was rewarded by extra information. The word means literally “race”, “racetrack”, “racing chariot”, and only figuratively “career”. Resoundingly apt nowadays for careers in science.]

As with conferences so too with journals: How to distinguish between “genuine” and “fake” when authors have to pay to get published in both categories?
The obviously predatory Academic Journals & Conferences  charges fees of about $600 per paper. But authors paying to be published has been routine with many traditional and respectable scientific journals for 3 or 4 decades now. Professional societies faced with increasing costs of publishing journals, and obvious limits to how high membership fees could be raised, instituted “page charges” that authors needed to contribute: so many dollars per published page, fairly typically on the order of $100 or more per page. Admittedly, acceptance of an article was stated not to depend on the author’s ability to pay, but this was something like hogwash. If one could not pay the page charges in a journal of the American Chemical Society, the article would appear with a footnote, “Publication costs borne by the American Chemical Society” — an embarrassing comment revealing to all and sundry that the authors had been unable to obtain grant support for their work and were the research equivalent of beggars. In any case, without grants one doesn’t have a career anyway.

Criticism of the proliferating “open access, on-line” predatory journals  notes that they are cheap to produce, being published only on the Internet, so that their “article processing charges” of perhaps $500  to $1000  in Hindawi journals may seem exorbitant; Bentham Open similarly charges  between $450 and $900 depending on the type of article.
Yet pundits continue to praise the open–access journals produced under the imprint of the Public Library of Science, whose charges to authors are even higher: “To provide open access, PLOS journals use a business model in which our expenses — including those of peer review, journal production, and online hosting and archiving — are recovered in part by charging a publication fee to the authors or research sponsors for each article they publish”. In April 2013, those prices are $2900 for PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine; $2250 for PLOS Computational Biology, PLOS Genetics, PLOS Pathogens, and PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, and $1350 for PLOS ONE.
Like the American Chemical Society, PLOS has a “fee waiver policy, whereby PLOS offers to waive or further reduce the payment required of authors who cannot pay the full amount charged for publication . . . . Editors and reviewers have no access to whether authors are able to pay; decisions to publish are only based on editorial criteria”.
Nevertheless, what potential authors see equally with PLOS as with predatory journals is that if you want to publish, come up with money. That has been the accepted thing in science for decades now.

Look further into the “genuine, respectable” PLOS and note the profusion of staff: a CEO and a COO plus 15 in Administration/Finance, another dozen in “Advocacy”, “Customer Experience”, and “Human Resources”, 9 in “Marketing”; 25 in “Production”, in addition to the 17 in “Information Technology and Software development” and a few more in “Project Management” and “Publications and Products”. If that seems like a lot, note that there’s another 16 just for PLOS Biology, 16 for PLOS Community Journals, 13 for PLOS Medicine, and 34 for PLOS ONE. Another 7 are listed in “Product Development” and 3 in “Publishing Services”, whether specifically in PLOS ONE or in PLOS as a whole is not clear.
No wonder PLOS has to charge a multiple of what “predatory” journals charge. My recommendation to the Board of PLOS: Ask Hindawi or Bentham to run your journals for you, you’ll save a lot of money. And Hindawi and Bentham and their ilk could also learn from PLOS how to increase profits even more: set up a shop  selling T-shirts, mugs, and other things inextricably associated with any scientific enterprise.
PLOS appears to be just like the proliferating “not-for-profit” hospitals, motorists’ associations, charities, etc., that serve mainly to provide lucrative employment to innumerable people doing things that don’t particularly need to be done.

PLOS is not alone as an “open access” venture stemming initially from the scientific community. Long-established professional associations are also jumping into the rapid-publication, on-line publishing business. In addition to the many invitations I’ve received over the last few years from Hindawi and Bentham and their ilk there have also been solicitations from the Royal Society of Medicine. (£250 @ $380; £350 @ $535; and note that you get a 10% discount for publishing 10 pieces, no doubt to encourage placing quality ahead of quantity.)

Another criterion researchers might try to rely on for distinguishing genuine from parasitic is whether a journal is indexed by the established services. Well, the Bentham Science “journal”, Current HIV Research, seems impeccable in that respect:
“ISSN: 1570-162X (Print)
ISSN: 1873-4251 (Online)
 Indexed in:
Science Citation Index Expanded™ , ISI/Thomson Web of Science, ISI Alerting Services, Journal Citation Reports/Science Edition, BIOSIS, BIOSIS Previews, BIOSIS Reviews Reports and Meetings, Chemical Abstracts, MEDLINE/Index Medicus, Scopus, EMBASE, EMBASE/Excerpta Medica, PubsHub, Genamics JournalSeek, MediaFinder®-Standard Periodical Directory, J-Gate, PubMed.”

Evidently those who manage these important indexing and abstracting services find it no easier than anyone else to distinguish real from spurious.

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