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

June 10, 2009

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 Science Publishers, 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. —Paul Basken