Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Open-Access Publisher Appears to Have Accepted Fake Paper From Bogus Center

Susan Notes:

Here's a convenient source for folks at the U. S. Department of Education to publish the "science" they're currently hawking across the country--scientific data, scientific best and brightest teachers, scientific lessons, and what have you. We should check how much of their "science" comes from Bentham.

Don't miss the readers' comments at the end of the article. There are some truism about readership of research and where statistics come from. And some comments that address the problem of schools abandoning textbooks and going for open source materials.

There is a second account of this incident below--from New Scientist.

And you can create your own scholarly paper at SCIgen. Here's mine, done with close colleagues. It is also available in downloadable PDF format, should anyone want a copy complete with charts and graphs.

by Paul Basken

The medical-research industry is under growing pressure to improve its ethical standards. Similar pressure has extended to peer-reviewed medical journals, after Elsevier, a publishing leader, admitted to publishing at least nine fake journals from 2000 to 2005.

In other words, it's an especially bad time for a medical journal to be duped by an author who, say, submits a fake computer-generated research paper from a fake institution he named the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology-- or CRAP.

And yet that's exactly what appears to have happened.

The deception was the work of Philip M. Davis, a doctoral student in communication at Cornell University who serves as executive editor of the Society for Scholarly Publishing's Scholarly Kitchen blog.

Mr. Davis said he had concocted the plan after receiving numerous "aggressive" unsolicited e-mail messages from Bentham Publishing, which finances its line of 200 open-access scientific journals by charging authors a publication fee.

Mr. Davis and the blog's editor in chief, Kent R. Anderson, submitted two research papers that were created by a computer program at MIT called SCIgen that describes itself as generating random text intended to "maximize amusement, rather than coherence."

One of the papers was rejected by Bentham, and the other-- a nonsensical five-page report with footnotes and graphical charts that purported to describe an Internet process called the "Trifling Thamyn"-- was accepted after the publisher said it had been peer-reviewed. Mr. Davis reported that an invoice for $800 had been issued by Bentham, without any evidence that the article was actually peer-reviewed.

The publications director at Bentham, Mahmood Alam, told The Chronicle by e-mail that, "to the best of our knowledge, we have not published any article from the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology in any of our journals." Mr. Davis said he had written to Bentham to withdraw the paper after its publication was approved.

Bentham's subscription manager, Pradeep Menon, reached by telephone at the company's headquarters in the United Arab Emirates, said he was aware of the accusation but had no further details and could not offer any other company official to comment.

"It's the first of its kind because we never had such an insinuation charged against us," Mr. Menon said. "All of our journals are peer-reviewed-- that is 100 percent sure."

Similar scammers have had success in the past, most notably the hoax published in the journal Social Text in 1996 by Alan D. Sokal, a physicist at New York University.

The "popular conception" that open-access publishers rely on publication fees, meanwhile, may not even be true, according to Stuart M. Shieber, a professor of computer science at Harvard University. Mr. Shieber, in his blog, The Occasional Pamphlet, said he had devised a program to pull data out of computerized medical-journal listings and concluded that only about 23 percent of open-access journals charge publication fees.
Posted on Wednesday June 10, 2009 |

1. After reading the story I did a bit of further research on this journal. Open Access is irrelevant here, but it's clear that this journal --or perhaps the publisher--is problematic. I was unable to determine who the members of the journal's editorial board are. I corresponded with the editor (whose name is printed incorrectly on the journal web site), and he reports that "I don't know about the members of the editorial advisory board. I only communicate indirectly."

What mechanisms should the academy have in place to certify journals? How do we know that any particular journal is refereed?

Certification authorities (and webs of trust) are a solved problem in computer science, as anyone who has ever used SSL encryption can happily observe. Why can't we solve the problem in information science?

--JQ Johnson Jun 10, 07:13 PM

2. No one reads 92% of all published research anyway so it does really matter much whether most journals are "real" or not--most "real" journals, being entirely unread, at not all that real. Academia lacking accountability is over-priced and under-useful.

--Richard Tabor Greene Jun 10, 09:11 PM

3. 40% of all statistics are made up.

--Homer Simpson Jun 11, 06:03 AM

4. I think Mr. Davis should be prosecuted for fraud and should be kicked out of school for plagiarism for submitting a paper that was obviously not his own work.

--Bob Jun 11, 08:44 AM

5. I find this amusing, especially since there is such a trend in the public school systems towards using "free" open source materials as an alternative to textbooks. It just goes to show that you get what you pay for.

--Crumudgeon Jun 11, 09:19 AM

6. I second Crumudgeon, who for all I know may have a brother Curmudgeon. Three decades in publishing have not reinforced my idealistic illusions, but however "overpriced" edited, reviewed, and otherwise vetted books and journals may seem, their cost does not even come close to the cost of relying on unedited, unreviewed, and unvetted books and journals.

As the saying goes, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." If you think responsibly edited and produced scholarly materials are expensive, then go ahead and rely on some free-spirited POS publisher who cranks out pages as if they were widgets.

Davis has performed an invaluable service. If the house is on fire, you call the fire department, and you don't bitch about broken windows and water on the floor.

And as a matter of fact, the house is on fire.

--Dan Jun 11, 10:48 AM

7. Could it be that everything is true only to the point that we believe it to be true because it sounds true? That the scientific method is actually a highly sophisticated form of magic, and that in the hands of a skilled performer, Trifling Thamyn could be the key to time travel? Remember, it's not about the rabbit, it's about the empty hat.

--Mitzy Moon Jun 11, 12:08 PM

8. What the 3 examples in the story (CRAP, Sokal, and Elsevier/Merck) point to is that corruption shows up in lots of places. The business model does't seem to make a difference.

--drl Jun 11, 12:14 PM

9. Crumudgeon and Dan seem to be implying that there's a necessary polarisation between reliability, commericial publishing, good peer review and high cost on the one hand, and poor editorial standards, open source and lower costs on the other. There are many open source journals which have committed, able staff publishing genuinely peer-reviewd articles. I don't think the dichotomy they seem to be setting up is as black and white as that.

--loobyloo Jun 12, 08:19 AM

12. No doubt there are "open source journals which have committed, able staff publishing genuinely peer-reviewed articles," although I'd guess that "many" might be wishful thinking.

There are also, I have no doubt, whores with hearts of gold and thoughtful, disinterested politicians.

--Dan Jun 12, 12:06 PM

13. Phil and Kent's experiment underscores the need for real peer review done by real scientists via real publishers -- the best of which, I believe, are the scholarly and professional society publishers that uphold sound publishing practice, often despite profitability. These publishers have faced many adversities in recent years and maintain their standards in the face of enormous pressure to use short-cuts to save money and be cost competitive. Fortunately, we're learning that not all new, quick ways of sharing information are the same as scholarly publishing.

--Priscilla Markwood Jun 12, 02:51 PM

Here's another account.

New Scientist, July 12, 2009

by Peter Aldhous

At New Scientist we love a good hoax, especially one that both amuses and makes a serious point about the communication of science. So kudos to Philip Davis, a graduate student in library and information science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who revealed yesterday on The Scholarly Kitchen blog that he got a nonsensical computer-generated paper accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Earlier this year, Davis started receiving unsolicited emails from Bentham Science Publishers, which publishes more than 200 "open-access" journals--which turn the conventional business model of academic publishing on its head by charging publication fees to the authors of research papers, and then making the content available for free.

As the emails stacked up, Davis was not only encouraged to submit papers, but was also invited to serve on the editorial board of some of Bentham's journals-- for which he was told he would be allowed to publish one free article each year. "I received solicitations for journals for which I had no subject expertise at all," says Davis. "It really painted a picture of vanity publishing."

Sheer nonsense
So Davis teamed up with Kent Anderson, a member of the publishing team at The New England Journal of Medicine, to put Bentham's editorial standards to the test. The pair turned to SCIgen, a program that generates nonsensical computer science papers, and submitted the resulting paper to The Open Information Science Journal, published by Bentham.

The paper, entitled "Deconstructing Access Points" (pdf) made no sense whatsoever, as this sample reveals:

In this section, we discuss existing research into red-black trees, vacuum tubes, and courseware [10]. On a similar note, recent work by Takahashi suggests a methodology for providing robust modalities, but does not offer an implementation [9].
Acronym clue
Davis and Anderson, writing under the noms de plume David Phillips and Andrew Kent, also dropped a hefty hint of the hoax by giving their institutional affiliation as the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology, or CRAP.

Yet four months after the article was submitted, "David Phillips" received an email from Sana Mokarram, Bentham's assistant manager of publication:
This is to inform you that your submitted article has been accepted for publication after peer-reviewing process in TOISCIJ. I would be highly grateful to you if you please fill and sign the attached fee form and covering letter and send them back via email as soon as possible to avoid further delay in publication.
The publication fee was $800, to be sent to a PO Box in the United Arab Emirates. Having made his point, Davis withdrew the paper.

Mahmood Alam, Bentham's director of publications, responded to queries from New Scientist by email: "In this particular case we were aware that the article submitted was a hoax, and we tried to find out the identity of the individual by pretending the article had been accepted for publication when in fact it was not."

"Why hasn't he attempted to contact me directly in order to determine my true identity?" Davis responds.

— Paul Basken & Peter Aldhous
Chronicle of Higher Education & New Scientist


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.