Fraud in scholarly publishing

Should librarianship be a field that studies academic publishing as an endeavor, and works to educate scholars and students to take a critical perspective?  Some librarians are expected/required to publish for career promotion, are investigations in this area something anyone does?

From Scientific American, For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal:

Klaus Kayser has been publishing electronic journals for so long he can remember mailing them to subscribers on floppy disks. His 19 years of experience have made him keenly aware of the problem of scientific fraud. In his view, he takes extraordinary measures to protect the journal he currently edits, Diagnostic Pathology. For instance, to prevent authors from trying to pass off microscope images from the Internet as their own, he requires them to send along the original glass slides.

Despite his vigilance, however, signs of possible research misconduct have crept into some articles published in Diagnostic Pathology. Six of the 14 articles in the May 2014 issue, for instance, contain suspicious repetitions of phrases and other irregularities. When Scientific American informed Kayser, he was apparently unaware of the problem. “Nobody told this to me,” he says. “I’m very grateful to you.”

[…]

The dubious papers aren’t easy to spot. Taken individually each research article seems legitimate. But in an investigation by Scientific American that analyzed the language used in more than 100 scientific articles we found evidence of some worrisome patterns—signs of what appears to be an attempt to game the peer-review system on an industrial scale.

[…]

A quick Internet search uncovers outfits that offer to arrange, for a fee, authorship of papers to be published in peer-reviewed outlets. They seem to cater to researchers looking for a quick and dirty way of getting a publication in a prestigious international scientific journal.

This particular form of the for-pay mad-libs-style research paper appears to be prominent  mainly among researchers in China. How can we talk about this without accidentally stooping to or encouraging anti-Chinese racism or xenophobia?   There are other forms of research fraud and quality issues which are prominent in the U.S. and English-speaking research world too.  If you follow this theme of scholarly quality issues, as I’ve been trying to do casually, you start to suspect the entire scholarly publishing system, really.

We know, for instance, that ghost-written scholarly pharmaceutical articles are not uncommon in the U.S. too.   Perhaps in the U.S. scholarly fraud is more likely to come for ‘free’ from interested commercial entities, then by researchers paying ‘paper salesmen’ for poor quality papers.  To me, a paper written by a pharmaceutical company employer but published under the name of an ‘independent’ researcher is arguably a worse ethical violation, even if everyone involved can think “Well, the science is good anyway.”  It also wouldn’t shock me if very similar systems to China’s paper-for-sale industry exist in the U.S., on a much smaller scale, but they are more adept at avoiding reuse of nonsense boilerplate, making it harder to detect. Presumably the Chinese industry will get better at avoiding detection too, or perhaps already is at a higher end of the market.

In both cases, the context is extreme career pressure to ‘publish or perish’, into a system that lacks the ability to actually ascertain research quality sufficiently, but which the scholarly community believes has that ability.

Problems with research quality, don’t end here, they go on and on, and are starting to get more attention.

  • An article from the LA Times from Oct 2013,
    Science has lost its way, at a big cost to humanity: Researchers are rewarded for splashy findings, not for double-checking accuracy. So many scientists looking for cures to diseases have been building on ideas that aren’t even true.” (and the HN thread on it).
  • From the Economist, also from last year, “Trouble at the lab: Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.”
  • From Nature August 2013 (was 2013 the year of discovering scientific publishing ain’t what we thought?), “US behavioural research studies skew positive:
    Scientists speculate ‘US effect’ is a result of publish-or-perish mentality.

There are also individual research papers investigating particular issues, especially statistical methodology problems, in scientific publishing.  I’m not sure if there are any scholarly papers or monographs which take a big picture overview of the crisis in scientific publishing quality/reliability — anyone know of any?

To change the system, we need to understand the system — and start by lowering confidence in the capabilities of existing ‘gatekeeping’.  And the ‘we’ is the entire cross-disciplinary community of scholars and researchers. We need an academic discipline and community devoted to a critical examination of scholarly research and publishing as a social and scientific phenomenon, using social science and history/philosophy of science research methods; a research community (of research on research) which is also devoted to education of all scholars, scientists, and students into a critical perspective.   Librarians seem well situated to engage in this project in some ways, although in others it may be unrealistic to expect.

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2 Responses to Fraud in scholarly publishing

  1. sirmies says:

    Nice piece Jonathan. I agree that Librarianship is positioned nicely to study academic publishing. Librarianship can track and catalog the various short cuts that researchers commonly make in terms of research publishing. But I would like to see us move beyond inventorying research fraud. Academic publishing and communication are undergoing tremendous change and I think we need see research fraud in that light. 20th century norms of ‘author’, ‘expertise’, ‘tenure’, ‘authority’, ‘originality’, etc., will definitely undergo reinterpretations. Yet the field of librarianship, because of its historical legacy, can a critical and constructive voice in that change.

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