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Dozens of academic journals appoint fake editor

Dozens of academic titles have offered a sham scientist a place on their editorial board, according to an investigation by researchers, published in Nature, the international weekly journal of science.

The authors of the paper – Piotr Sorokowski, Emanuel Kulczycki, Agnieszka Sorokowska and Katarzyna Pisanksi – conceived a sting operation and submitted a fake application for an editor position to 360 journals, including both legitimate titles and suspected predatory journals. Forty-eight titles accepted.

The authors were working together at the University of Wroclaw, Poland, when, increasingly disturbed by the number of invitations they received to become editors or to review for journals completely outside their field, they decided to examine the problem empirically.

They created a profile of a fictitious scientist named Anna O Szust – oszust means 'a fraud' in Polish – and applied on her behalf to the editorial boards of the 360 journals.

“We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences,” Sorokowski et al explained in Nature.

They also created accounts on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter and made a faculty webpage at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, which could only be accessed through a link they provided in her CV.

Szust’s ‘work’, they explained, had never been indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases. Nor did she have any citations in any literature database. Even her CV did not list any articles in academic journals or any experiences as a reviewer, never mind an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine and the publishing houses were fake.

“The profile was dismally inadequate for a role as editor,” Sorokowski et al explained in Nature.

The journals contacted were sourced from well known directories. Two of them – the Journal of Citation Reports or JCR and the Directory of Open Access Journals or DOAJ – have requirements to meet standards of quality and ethical publishing practices.

The other was Beall’s list, created by Jeffrey Beall, a University of Colorado librarian to cover possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals that he believed exploited researchers and failed to meet basic standards of scholarly publishing, but which has since been taken down without explanation.

Journals were coded as having accepted the application only if they sent an email-reply explicitly accepting Szust as editor – although in a dozen or so cases they made this conditional on making a payment – or if Szust’s name was inserted on an official list of editorial board members on the journal’s website.

No JCR journal accepted, but eight DOAJ journals and 40 predatory journals appointed her as editor, Nature reported.

According to Sorokowski et al, Szust was almost never questioned about her experience, nor was there any attempt to contact her university or institute, while one journal went ahead and appointed her even after noticing that her cover letter said becoming an editor would enable her to obtain a degree that her CV claimed she already had.

Sorokowski et al report that of the eight DOAJ journals that accepted Szust as editor, six remained on the directory this month. Beall’s list did not include any of these.

The researchers said: “We designed our study to explicitly compare whitelisted and blacklisted journals. Although some journals listed as predatory did honourably – for instance some sent Szust papers to review – such titles were by far the most likely to accept an unqualified candidate and to try to profit from her.”

Conditional on donations

In some cases they asked her to make a direct payment such as a US$750 subscription fee or a donation of $50.

In Nature, explaining the rationale for the investigation, Sorokowski et al said there are thousands of academic journals that do not aspire to quality and exist “primarily to extract fees” from others. “These ‘predatory’ journals exhibit questionable marketing schemes, follow lax or non-existent peer-review procedures and fail to provide scientific rigour or transparency.”

A crucial factor in a journal’s quality is whether the editors, who decide on peer reviewers for an article and on whether it should be rejected, have the right level of expertise, they argue.

“Many predatory journals hoping to cash in seem to aggressively and indiscriminately recruit academics to build legitimate-looking editorial boards. Although academic pranksters have successfully placed fictional characters on editorial boards, no one has examined the issue systematically. We did.”
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