‘Publication Laundering’: How Publishers Happily Accept Fake And Nonsense Conference Papers In The Pursuit Of Profits

from the smouldering-nonsense dept

Techdirt has written many times about the dysfunctional state of academic publishing. The main issue is that academics do most of the work required to publish a paper, but the publishers reap most of the benefit. Profit margins are extremely high for top publishers — typically 30-40%. And yet academics are routinely forbidden from sharing their own papers, because they are pressured to assign copyright in them to the publisher, which uses the control that affords to block wider access to knowledge.

An eye-opening post by James Heathers on Medium reveals that the greed and rot in the world of academic publishing goes even deeper. This time, it involves the world of “proceedings” journals. These purport to be a collection of papers presented at a conference. It is the conference that applies to publish the proceedings, and that chooses external editors to handle the peer review. But, as Heathers explains, there is now a new kind of “publication laundering” based on proceedings journals, which works as follows:

Hold a conference, fake or real or somewhere in between. Assert a topic, a location (virtual would make this even easier), prepare a shell website, assign guest editors, etc.

Write to a Proceedings journal and request they publish your conference submissions. Shove your tongue firmly in your cheek, and tick all the boxes that promise you’ll follow the process, peer review the submissions, vet the editors etc. as above.

Write a series of smouldering nonsense papers.

Sell authorship to those papers.

Salt the duff papers through the real conference submissions if there are any (and presumably any real/fake admixture is possible).

‘Complete’ the conference, and batch all the submissions up nicely with the right formatting, send to Proceedings journal.

Wait for publication.

Collect money from ‘authors’ upon publication.

There are many advantages to this approach. The items are generally published as closed access, which restricts readership and thus scrutiny. These fake proceedings journals can claim they are “peer reviewed” because the conference is trusted to do this, and nobody checks. Another advantage is that proceedings can be published really quickly compared to the slower forms involving genuine peer-reviewed papers, and so seem to provide a really good service.

In his long and fascinating post, Heathers goes on to examine one proceedings journal in detail — Materials Today from Elsevier, probably the biggest and most successful academic publisher. Wikipedia defines materials science as:

The interdisciplinary field of materials science covers the design and discovery of new materials, particularly solids. The field is also commonly termed materials science and engineering emphasizing engineering aspects of building useful items, and materials physics, which emphasizes the use of physics to describe material properties.

Here are some of the subjects that Heather discovered among 35,000 conference papers in Materials Today:

There are 550 entries on FISH. From material science conferences.

There are 355 entries on COVID. From material science conferences.

Herbal soup. Whole body vibration. Laser measurement of pumpkins. Detecting financial fraud. Terrorism and its effects on tourism. Noise pollution. Social media sentiment analysis.

Other papers examined by Heathers are not just off-topic, but incomprehensible nonsense, perhaps automatically generated in some way. It’s a great piece of investigative journalism, well-worth reading in full. It exposes a huge and largely unknown problem with academic publishing, where the approach seems to be “ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies” when it comes to ascertaining whether the conference proceedings papers are genuine are not.

Belatedly, Elsevier is taking action:

Elsevier is retracting 500 papers from a journal dedicated to conference proceedings because “the peer-review process was confirmed to fall beneath the high standards expected,” Retraction Watch has learned.

The post on Retraction Watch notes that other publishers too are finally starting to grapple with the problem:

IOP Publishing has retracted 850 papers that fall into that category, and the Association for Computing Machinery has retracted more than 300.

It scandalous it has taken this long to begin addressing this serious problem. It is further confirmation that the academic publishing industry is not fit for purpose, and requires a radical re-boot.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or Mastodon.

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Comments on “‘Publication Laundering’: How Publishers Happily Accept Fake And Nonsense Conference Papers In The Pursuit Of Profits”

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21 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

There are 355 entries on COVID. From material science conferences.

There is at least the potential for that to be relevant. For example, material science could help develop new types of masks—maybe something with the capabilities of N95 but that fits a wider range of faces, or is washable or more durable or more breathable.

And while there’s every indication that surface transmission is basically irrelevant in the spread of COVID-19, we know materials can affect the viability of viruses and bacteria desposited on surfaces; copper seems more sanitary than stainless steel or plastic in this respect.

As for fish, biomaterials and biomimicry can be pretty interesting to material scientists. Fish might be the key to a new waterproof coating, or something that allows ships to move faster.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Which is a red flag, as the major audience for such papers are medical personal, and a valid material paper would deal with the particle sizes that can be filtered, and other mechnical properties.

I’m not sure I understand your claim. Yes, the medical needs of SARS-CoV-2 filtration are pretty well known: one must block particles of certain sizes, and use a good seal to make sure no air bypasses the filter. A good paper will quantify these, and need not involve doctors or medical trials. Still, it’s reasonable for a scientist to mention possible applications of their work, and writing “COVID” is timely and probably good for funding. Even if what the paper describes is a boring manufacturing improvement.

I don’t doubt that the journals have roughly the amount of bullshit claimed. The papers were retracted, after all. I just object to the oversimplified implication that if it’s about “COVID” or “fish” it’s obviously not material science. Wikipedia says, for example, “Biomimetic architecture is typically carried out in interdisciplinary teams in which biologists and other natural scientists work in collaboration with engineers, material scientists, architects, designers, mathematicians and computer scientists”—and, presumably, the team could publish papers in many of those fields.

Chozen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Trials Are a Must

Sorry but trials are a must. The offical stance of the entire medical community prior to COVID-19 was that while masks may show promises in mechanistic studies those results break down when subjected to real world testing.

“Although mechanistic studies support the potential effect of hand hygiene or face masks, evidence from 14 randomized controlled trials of these measures did not support a substantial effect on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.” ~ Xaio 2020

This is really an engineering question not a medical one. Its signals and systems. Yes there may be a potential benefit as shown by mechanistic studies but how does that work when used in the real world. Known Knowns, Unknown Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknowns Unknowns.

You have to consider everything not just one single signal you are introducing to the system. However, considering everything is humanly impossible. That’s the importance of black block analysis and RCT.

Post hoc there are very good reasons the relationship between mask use and effectiveness breaks down. A very large factor in infection is time of exposure. Walk down the street and someone sneezes time of exposure is minimal. Wear a masks and now those particles are on the mask all day. Time of exposure is greatly increased. People touch their mask all day. Masks don’t fit, well basic fluids/circuit analysis the equiliviant resistance of a 1000 ohm resistor in parallel with two 5 ohm resistors isn’t 337 ohms like so many people seem to think its 2.5 ohms.

Hell simply the false security of a mask causes people to be more careless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2

These are interesting points, but to my knowledge the N95 and similar standards don’t cover any of it (except in requiring/assuming proper fit). Have such trials actually been done? All the ones I know of treat (unvented) N95s as interchangable commodities, provided they fit properly. The idea that N95s of different manufacture could have significantly different performance with respect to viral transmission seems novel.

(Similarly, F2100 surgical masks are treated as fungible, whereas fabric masks are treated as so different from each other that all we can say is to avoid them in favor of standardized disposable ones.)

Anyway, such trials would be mostly outside the scope of material science. They would go into a medical journal, with any unexpected results possibly feeding back into material science later.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2

Masks stop the spread of viral diseases not by stopping the wearer catching the disease, but rather by stopping the infected from spreading the disease. Cough or sneeze into a mask, and most of the droplets carrying the viruses stay in the mask. Viruses lingering on a mask do not matter when the wearer is already infected, and the source of those particles.

Chozen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3

“Masks stop the spread of viral diseases not by stopping the wearer catching the disease, but rather by stopping the infected from spreading the disease. Cough or sneeze into a mask, and most of the droplets carrying the viruses stay in the mask. Viruses lingering on a mask do not matter when the wearer is already infected, and the source of those particles.”

Which signal dominates the system? Does it stop enough of the virus to have a larger affect than wearing a mask increases risk to the wearer? This is why we do RCT we don’t know all the possibilities. RCT and black box is the only way we find unknown knowns, and the unknown unknowns. And even then we don’t nessacary find them we just realize that there is something we are missing.

Chozen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Simple Experiement

A simple question is ‘Why do my glasses keep fogging up when I wear my mask.’

Answer: Because your mask isn’t working. A mask is just a parallel resistance problem for a fluid or current. Unless you have a perfect seal it isn’t doing much. Drewnick 2020 found that at if just 3% of the mask space is open the efficacy of the mask drops to zero. This is irrespective of the material used because its a fluid dynamics issue not a materials issue. The fluid goes through the least resistive path just as electrical current goes through the least resistive path to ground. The equiliviant resistance of a 1000 ohm resistor in parallel with two 5 ohm resistors isn’t 337 ohms its 2.5.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3

Masks stop the spread of viral diseases not by stopping the wearer catching the disease, but rather by stopping the infected from spreading the disease.

A good N95 or similar respirator, with no unfiltered exhalation valve, can stop viruses in either direction. Since the virus speads almost entirely via the air, this is extremely important. The death toll would’ve been much higher had medical staff had to wear full HAZMAT suits with positive-pressure air supply (we don’t have nearly enough suits or hospital rooms to do this for millions of patients).

Cloth and surgical masks are indeed primarily about source control, and are bad at filtering incoming air.

Anonymous Coward says:

It scandalous it has taken this long to begin addressing this serious problem.

The fact that it has “taken this long” is related to the fact that the problem really isn’t addressed at all. These things aren’t bugs, they are features built into the core from the beginning.

i assume you are just more charitable than am i, at least for the purposes of writing articles.

Flakbait (profile) says:

Red-Handed

Elsevier is retracting 500 papers from a journal dedicated to conference proceedings because “the peer-review process was confirmed to fall beneath the high standards expected,” Retraction Watch has learned.

‘Elsevier’ and ‘high standards’ aren’t mutually exclusive when used in the same sentence, so long as the high standards to which Elsevier is referring relates to being good enough to get away with it.

Chozen (profile) says:

Saddly Not Uncommon

Sadly not too uncommon in publish or perish. IEEE had to withdraw 120 published papers that were written by the SciGen program. The papers themselves were nothing but scientific gibberish but peer reviewers didn’t want to admit that it didn’t make sense. This is especially scary when you think if the influence of IEEE, IEEE has way more power over everyday life than any scientific journal. Nothing you buy has Journal of Applied Psychology Standard XYZ on the back of the box like IEEE does.

Similar problem in the Positivity Hoax. I was having dinner in 2016 with a teacher who referenced this fraud despite it being proven a fraud 2 years prior.

The reason it passed review was simple. It was using fluid mechanics equations to prove the power of positive thinking in a psychology journal. None of the reviewers, all psychologists, stood any chance of understanding the math, since wen its fluid dynamics and difeq required for a degree in psychology.

Anonymous Coward says:

You're overthinking it

Those articles about COVID and fish were about materials science. The future is buildings made of viruses and trains made of fish. Viruses are well-known for being hard to destroy and fish such as salmon are known for travelling very quickly to cover hundreds of miles. And I bet that you’ve never heard of a virus building destroyed by an earthquake.

Disclaimer: One of the papers about whole body vibration was mine. I found out that if I convince enough tenants in an apartment building to vibrate at the building’s resonant frequency, the building collapses in a few minutes.

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