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We must clear out the rubbish fouling up the scientific pipeline

Written by: David A. Sanders
Published on: 4 Feb 2021

People in protective gear spraying water

Source: Getty

A first for Times Higher Education: a scientific review article! In this review, I will evaluate the current literature on microRNAs or other non-coding RNAs and ovarian cancer in males.

Wait a minute. Ovarian cancer in males? That’s ludicrous, you say. Well, I can cite not one but two “peer-reviewed” articles that identify among their patients (detailed in tables) numerous males with ovarian cancer.

Both these articles appear to be products of scientific paper mills. And they are but a drop in that poisonous ocean. The efforts of numerous pseudonymous and named others have identified hundreds of published articles that share images, backgrounds, tables and texts – especially concerning cancers and microRNAs or other non-coding RNAs. A major concern is that researchers might actually design diagnostics on the basis of this faux corpus.

I discovered the first of these two groundbreaking articles because it had a table that was identical to one published in the same journal about a completely different (non-gynaecological) cancer and a different microRNA. The article has been cited more than 15 times, including in articles on ovarian cancer. The authors of those 15 papers were probably just indolent, reading only the abstracts of the articles they cite: a far-too-common practice in contemporary academia. No such allowance, however, can be made for the journal “editors” and “peer reviewers”.

It appears that Chinese clinicians, among others, purchase articles generated by companies that scatter their stock of data images and tables among text templates, with appropriate term substitutions so they appear novel. The goals seem to be academic degree attainment, career advancement and financial benefits: cash rewards for publishing in Western journals. Frequent features of the articles are author email addresses that are not associated with a research or medical institution and no apparent source of funding.

However, Western scientists should not feel superior by regarding this malfeasance as strictly an Asian phenomenon. The incentives that lead to the corruption of the scientific literature exist also in the West, albeit in a less nakedly mercenary form. And while the first two vertices of the bad-science-economy triangle – the labs and the paper mills – reside primarily in the developing world, the third has a much more Western flavour.

Many of the journals that publish the output of the paper mills are otherwise legitimate, if gullible, Western-based publications. However, a substantial number belong in the well-known category of “predatory journals”, defined by their cursory or non-existent peer review, their limited editorial input and the substantial fees they charge for publication. While these are based all over the world, they thrive because of the simulacrum of legitimacy imparted by the apparently legitimate Western scientists on their editorial boards, their indexing in mainstream scientific databases and the citation of their articles in legitimate, Western publications.

I have had two recent disturbing experiences of the consequences. At a Massachusetts Institute of Technology thesis defence, the student actually referred to an article published in a predatory journal. When I flagged this, one of the members of the thesis committee proclaimed his ignorance of that fact. In the second incident, a college friend who is a cancer patient asked me whether she should alter her treatment on the basis of an article she had read in a predatory journal. She was, of course, unaware of the poor standards of the journal, but was thankful to hear my resounding “no”.

As researchers, we need to take responsibility for stopping the pollution of the literature. First, as editors and reviewers, we need to put more effort into educating ourselves about these problems and becoming more sophisticated at detecting fraud. Second, journals need to spend more resources on purifying the existing literature. They should have skilled individuals dedicated to this endeavour; editors who see this as merely a distraction are ill-equipped to accomplish the necessary tasks, while journals that lack the time and money to remove the excrement they have deposited into the corpus should refrain from adding to it.

Third, we need to boycott predatory journals. Western authors, who should know better, sometimes submit their articles to these scientific tabloids; this must stop. Furthermore, scientists must refuse to cite papers from such journals, review for them or permit themselves to be listed as editors. I have often encountered researchers who claim not to have even known that they were listed as being on a predatory journal’s editorial board, having never had any dealings with the journal. But ignorance is only a partial excuse. People should conduct electronic searches to find whether they are listed as editors of predatory journals – and, if they find that they are, they must demand that their names be removed.

We also need to have a serious discussion about the incentive system that leads to perversions of science such as paper mills and predatory journals. The fault lies in the reliance on metrics such as grant money and publication quantity as surrogates for research achievement. But even while such perverse incentives remain, there is a necessity for substantial and swift consequences for violating scientific norms.

David A. Sanders is an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University.