The controversy over fake news may focus on politics, but it’s also slipping into the scientific realm, says one of the country’s pioneers in the study of B.S.
The hunger for clicks and credibility has led to the proliferation of bogus research journals with serious-sounding names, University of Washington information scientist Jevin West said today during the 2017 GeekWire Summit.
“It’s really, truly an epidemic. … This is a science crisis right now,” West told GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop, who was the moderator for a panel on technology, media and the future of the truth. “Just like in the regular world, people are creating journals by putting up a WordPress site and saying, ‘I’m the Journal of Todd’s Dog-Killing Organization. If you hate dogs, then you should write a research article.’”
Sometimes the bogus studies even get written up by bona fide journalists, said West, whose college-level class on calling B.S. has generated international attention.
Axios’ chief technology correspondent, Ina Fried, weighed in with a jocular reality check: “As a journalist, I just do want to state directly, I have no evidence that Todd kills puppies.”
Scientific fakery is part of a cycle that includes unscrupulous researchers looking for the respectability that publishing a paper provides, as well as predatory journals willing to publish virtually anything for a fee.
West said the trend capitalizes on the rise of open-access publications that cater to specialty areas of scientific research. Several well-documented sting operations illustrate the seriousness of the problem:
- Researchers sent out laughably lame resumes under a pseudonym to see if journals would sign her up as an editor. Nearly 50 journals took the bait. The pseudonym? Anna O. Szust, where “oszust” is the Polish word for fraud.
- Another scientist sent out an absurd paper delving into the study of “midi-chlorians,” the entities that supposedly live inside cells and generate the Force as described in Star Wars movies. The paper lifted whole sections of Star Wars lore, was littered with misspellings, and was submitted under the names of Dr. Lucas McGeorge and Dr. Annette Kin. (Get it?) Three journals published the paper, and a fourth offered to do so if the authors paid a $360 fee.
- A classic case involved a research paper about a made-up wonder drug, under the name of a made-up researcher from a made-up academic institution in Eritrea. The paper was submitted to 304 open-access journals, and more than half of those journals accepted it for publication.
The good news is that if publishing fake news and fake science can be profitable, rooting out the fakery can be, too.
“Get in the business of media literacy, get in the business of quality assurance in terms of the information and advertising industry, get in the business of dispelling misinformation,” said Vinny Green, vice president of operations at Snopes.com. “You will have a job for at least as long as the people who’ve worked as Snopes have had a job, and we’ve been around for over 20 years now.”