Not all scientific journals are created equal. With the advent of "predatory" journals that seem legitimate but function essentially on "pay-for-publish" economies, some commentators are claiming we are facing a looming crisis in science. One journalist set out to test the credibility of several journals by writing a fictional research paper inspired by the science of Star Wars. Four journals fell for the joke and published the clearly absurd paper.
Predatory journals have become the scourge of academic publishing over the last few years. These bogus journals seem like legitimate sources but often lack peer-review procedures and will publish any paper if the author pays a fee. A major, two-year investigation revealed in early 2017 found that dozens of journals accepted a sham scientist onto their editorial boards without any investigation into the applicant's background.
Similar recent "stings" include a dog getting appointed to seven different medical journal editorial boards and a sham cancer research paper, riddled with intentional errors, that was accepted and published by scores of journals.
The latest predatory journal "sting" came from a journalist blogging for Discover magazine. An absurdly obvious paper was constructed based on the Star Wars mythology of midichlorians. The fake research paper was mostly copied from the Wikipedia entry on mitochondrians but contained a few strategic edits.
A brief scan of the paper easily reveals it to be a farce, with the concluding paragraph even including the line: "Decreased enzyme throughput of the respiratory chain proteins has been spied in tissue from old Jedi." If that wasn't enough to mark the paper as a joke, simply look at the authors - Lucas McGeorge and Annette Kin.
Out of the nine journals the paper was submitted to, three published it, with a fourth willing to publish for a fee. While some journals picked up on the joke, several frighteningly just republished the absurd, error-ridden paper with no questions asked.
There is no question if this spoof research paper was submitted to a credible journal with a reputable peer-review process it would have quickly been thrown aside. The problem this stunt reveals is that there are literally hundreds of sham predatory journals out there, and it's often quite difficult to identify a credible source. For all intents and purposes these "predatory journals" have real sounding names and look from the outside like credible publications.
In the age of hyper partisan politics and fake news it is becoming exceptionally difficult to find sources of information we can trust, but that is the challenge we all now face. This Star Wars scam again highlights the scourge of predatory journals.
Academics must themselves make sure they publish their papers in credible journals. Journalists must be wary of scam publishers, and not simply rely on a published journal reference as a source. And the general public need to engage critically with information delivered to them. Not all scientific journals are created equal.