A peer-reviewed journal recently published a mind-bending paper. It begins with a highly technical section about groundwater seepage before delving into a lively discussion of dance training. The paper shifts back and forth between the two topics, informing the reader about rare-earth elements before urging dancers to “tighten buttocks” during warm-ups. There are tables and graphs, citations and hyperlinks. It’s all very sober and scientific-seeming and yet, at the same time, completely bonkers.
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The paper appeared last month in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, which is one of several thousand journals put out by the publishing giant Springer Nature. If this was just one weird paper in an obscure journal, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy. But hundreds — 412, to be exact — of equally bizarre or suspicious papers have popped up in the same journal in recent months. One examines college sports-injury insurance along with rainfall on the Loess Plateau, in China. Another deals with sea-level height and aerobics teaching. In what purports to be a legitimate geosciences journal there are at least five papers on swimming and seven on basketball.
Reading the papers makes for a disorienting experience. One minute you’re being lectured on ecological risk assessment, and the next you’re learning about the many similarities between badminton and tennis. So what exactly is going on here? And what does it tell us, if anything, about the state of academic publishing?
One possibility is that it’s a prank. A few years ago a group of dedicated hoaxers wrote some nonsense papers that were published by real journals as part of an attempt to prove that the journals were willing to publish jargon-laden silliness. But what would be the point of writing and submitting mash-ups of geology and sports research? If the papers are supposed to be funny, the authors are operating on a level of deep absurdity that’s hard to fathom.
Also, no one has taken credit. The papers were instead discovered by commenters on PubPeer, a website that allows readers to dissect scientific papers after they’re published. Some of the papers, though not all, were published as part of a special issue of the journal edited by Sheldon Williamson, a professor of electrical, computer, and software engineering at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Williamson told Retraction Watch that his email account had been hacked.
When I spoke with Williamson, he said he didn’t know for sure that his email had been hacked, but he assumed it had been. He said he was just as perplexed as everyone else about how so many ridiculous papers, with his name listed as the responsible editor, had made it into the journal. “I don’t know which ones are legitimate and which ones are not,” he said. As for what happened here, he said: “I believe people are desperate to publish. I don’t know. It could be anything.” He also said the matter had been resolved and the papers were no longer listed online.
In fact, the papers are still available, though Springer is attaching an “editorial expression of concern” to the hundreds it has identified so far. I also spoke to Abdullah Al-Amri, the founder and editor in chief of the journal, and a professor of geophysics at King Saud University, in Saudi Arabia. He assured me that he reads every paper that appears in the journal, which is remarkable considering that it publishes two issues each month. In September alone, the journal published 276 papers. At that clip, Al-Amri would be reading roughly 10 papers a day, every day, including weekends.
“You have to believe there are some people hacking the journal,” he told me. “I know which papers I have to approve, and which papers I have to disapprove. I know my job for the last 30 years. But if some people sign into the Springer system on my behalf, I don’t know how this happens.” When pressed on how numerous papers had appeared in his journal without his knowledge, and apparently without his notice until it was brought to his attention, Al-Amri was adamant that he had no idea what was going on. ”I never saw it. I never! I don’t know how this came under my signature,” he said. “That’s what I can say — I don’t know.”
So someone or some group of people is using sophisticated technology to sneak silly papers into peer-reviewed journals by the hundreds. That still doesn’t tell us why.
One clue is that the overwhelming majority of the papers were ostensibly written by authors who claim to be affiliated with Chinese institutions. Universities in China often reward researchers for publishing in notable journals listed on the Science Citation Index, in some cases paying them cash bonuses, though China’s science and education ministries have recently tried to crack down on the practice. It’s also long been a requirement that doctoral students at many Chinese universities publish a paper before they graduate. Such mandates create a strong — some might say perverse — incentive to get a paper, any paper, into a journal. The emphasis naturally becomes less on publishing a high-quality piece of work than on checking a box. (I sent emails to several supposed authors of the papers; none of them replied.)
What happened with the geosciences journal is extreme, but it isn’t unique. Springer also recently found that another of its journals, Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, had published 24 papers that appear to be nonsense. In May, yet another Springer journal, Current Psychology, retracted more than a dozen articles that had been part of a special issue due to “problems with editorial handling and peer review.” Again, some of the articles seemed to have little to do with the journal’s topic and, as detailed in notes on each article, were riddled with errors and methodological problems.
And it’s not just Springer. Elsevier, another journal-publishing giant, recently issued editorial expressions of concern about some 400 articles that had fallen “beneath the high standards” for one of its journals. Meanwhile, Taylor & Francis retracted a special issue because the guest editor had been “impersonated by a fraudulent entity.” One lesson here seems to be that handing the keys of a journal over to an unpaid guest editor might be a bad idea.
Springer said it’s examining its processes to make sure this doesn’t happen again. But this strange episode brings to mind broader questions about academic publishing, including whether way too much subpar research is being pumped out each year and whether peer review is all it’s cracked up to be. I spoke to one of the PubPeer commenters, Nicholas Wise, who helped uncover the nonsense papers in the geosciences journal. He asked a question that’s worth contemplating: “Is anyone actually reading this journal?”