Fake news is not new to science. For years, scientists have watched trusted media outlets – along with junk websites posing as trusted media or experts – distribute misleading or false information disguised as science that creates unwarranted public fear of beneficial scientific advances such as vaccines and GMOs. The unfortunate truth is the general public doesn’t always know the difference between a “good source” of scientific information and a “bad source.”
Thanks to a rigorous process that has been in place since the early 18th century, we scientists have been comforted by the fact that most scientific journals were refereed by the society that backed them. If you are unfamiliar with the process, it typically goes like this: when scientists are ready to share new and potentially important study results, they submit a detailed article, which summarizes their study, to the editors of a journal in hopes of getting published in that journal. Historically, the editors of these journals are selected by scientific societies who consider them subject-matter experts. These scientific “peers” perform a detailed review of how the research was conducted, its outcomes and the authors’ conclusions before agreeing to publish any article.
This peer review process provides an important checks and balances system designed to ensure that scientific methods are dependable and that the conclusions are supported by the data reported. Ultimately, the process of publishing peer-reviewed research is about fulfilling science’s contract with society. Scientists disclose the work that they do so that their work can be scrutinized, replicated by others and developed further so that ideas can be disseminated to people who can benefit from those discoveries.
Unfortunately, we now live in a world where the integrity of peer-reviewed journals is being threatened by the rise of the academic version of fake news – something many call “predatory publishing,” but I like to call “deceptive publishing.” Much like fake news, the Internet and social media have empowered the masses to share science quickly and with less restriction. In addition, the increasing ease of online publishing has provided an opportunity for publishers to create journals without the traditional costs associated with a print publication. This creates an incentive to publish anything and everything.
All of this has led to the emergence of a new and dark market of deceptive publishers that exploit the concept of open access and provide channels for “scientific journal” publication with little or no peer review. For a fee they will publish almost anything – even if the study was fatally flawed. And these journals provide a forum that can be used as a channel to publish fraudulent “advocacy research.”
Since 2012, the number of deceptive journals has tripled. As of 2016, ~25% of all scholarly journals were deemed “predatory” and are responsible for publishing more than 500,000 articles every year. Because these low-quality scientific studies published in deceptive journals often look highly scientific, the media mistakenly share the findings, erroneously shaping public opinion well before scientific experts communicate that the study methods or conclusions are flawed. And since public opinion influences policy and decision-making, the consequences are significant and costly to society, creating roadblocks to new innovations that could have substantial benefits for all of us.
To illuminate how deceptive publishing disrupts scientific integrity, several scholars and journalists have carried out some clever sting operations. For example, Science magazine’s John Bohannon developed a spoof article that was distributed to and accepted by several predatory publishers. More recently, as reported in Nature, a group of researchers at the University of Wrocław in Poland manufactured a fake persona with fake credentials named Dr. Szust who applied to the editorial boards of several journals (both credible and deceptive). Many deceptive publishers didn’t even question Szust’s credentials or experience and at least a dozen appointed Szust as editor conditional only to some form of payment.
It is also worth pointing out the good that has come out of scientific publishing online: open access. Many journals now publish more open access articles. The Gates Foundation should be commended for leading the way with its Open Access policy that enables the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation, including any underlying data sets. The Gates Foundation is also awarding $100,000 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science and four sister subscription journals) to enable it to make any paper by a Gates Foundation-funded researcher published in 2017 immediately available online for free.
We need to do a better job of recognizing deceptive publishing practices and insisting upon the rigor of the scientific peer-review process for sharing new research and innovation. Leaders in academia and scientific societies need to step up, set examples and cultivate awareness and action around predatory publishers. While we at Monsanto have always expected rigorous peer review on all our published journal articles, we have taken extra care to ensure that our scientists identify and publish in high-quality journals that have editorial boards comprised of subject matter experts. We remain committed to broad communication of our science, and will continue to provide open access to our key scientific publications and continue to share new publications with diverse audiences.
The bottom line is deceptive publishing affects scientific integrity, which is detrimental to innovation and has other far-reaching implications for society. As scientists, we need to stay vigilant and insist on bringing high-quality, peer-reviewed science into accessible spaces because science’s contract with society demands it.
For more information, see:
Federal Trade Commission’s has charged the publisher, OMICs, for deceiving academics and researchers for profit - https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/08/ftc-charges-academic-journal-publisher-omics-group-deceived