A case study of how bad science spreads

Fake news has been the go-to criticism of the media for some politicians, which in turn has been rejected as propaganda and fear-mongering by journalists. However, as former journalist Simon Linacre argues, the fourth estate needs to have its own house is in order first, and ensure they are not tripped up by predatory journals.

I class myself as a ‘runner’, but only in the very loosest sense. Inspired by my wife taking up running a few years ago, I decided I should exercise consistently instead of the numerous half-hearted, unsuccessful attempts I had made over the years. Three years later I have done a couple of half-marathons, run every other day, and track my performance obsessively on Strava. I have also recently started to read articles on running online, and have subscribed to the magazine Runners World. So yes, I think I may actually be a runner now.

But I’m also an experienced journalist, a huge cynic, and have a bulls*** radar the size of the Grand Canyon, so even while relaxing with my magazine I like to think I can spot fakery a mile off. And so it proved earlier this summer while reading a piece on how hill running can improve your fitness. This was music to my ears as someone who lives half-way up a valley side, but my interest was then piqued when I saw a reference to the study that formed the basis for the piece, which was to an article in the International Journal of Scientific Research. Immediately, I smelt a rat. “There is no way that is the name of a reputable, peer-reviewed journal,” I thought. And I was right.

But that wasn’t even half of the problem.

After checking Cabells’ Predatory Reports database, I found not one but TWO journals are listed on the database with that name, both with long lists of breaches of the Cabells’ criteria that facilitate the identification of predatory journals. I was still curious as to the nature of the research, as it could have been legitimate research in an illegitimate journal, or just bad research, full stop. As it turned out, neither journal had ever published any research on hill running and the benefits of increasing VO2 max. So where was the story from?

After some more digging, an article matching the details in the Runners World piece could be found in a third similarly-named journal, the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. The article, far from the recent breakthrough suggested in the August 2020 issue of Runners World, was actually published in August 2017 by two authors from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. While the science of the article seems OK, the experiment that produced the results was on just 32 people over 12 weeks, which means it really needs further validation across greater subjects to confirm its findings. Furthermore, while the journal itself was not included in Cabells’ Predatory Reports database, a review found significant failings, including unusually quick peer review processes and, more seriously, that the “owner/Editor of the journal or publisher falsely claims academic positions or qualifications”. The journal has subsequently been added to Predatory Reports, and the article itself has never been cited in the three years since publication.

Yet one question remains: how did a relatively obscure article, published in a predatory journal and that has never been cited, find its way into a news story in a leading consumer magazine? Interestingly, similar research was also quoted on MSN.com in May 2020 which also quoted the International Journal of Scientific Research, while other sites have also quoted the same research but from the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. It appears likely that, having been quoted online once, the same story has been doing the rounds for three years like a game of ‘Telephone,’ all based on uncited research that may not have been peer reviewed in the first place, that used a small sample size and was published in a predatory journal.

While no damage has been done here – underlying all this, it does make sense that hill running can aid overall performance – one need only need to think about the string of recent health news stories around the coronavirus to see how one unverified article could sweep like wildfire through news outlets and online. This is the danger that predatory journals pose.

They’re not doctors, but they play them on TV

Recently, while conducting investigations of suspected predatory journals, our team came across a lively candidate. At first, as is often the case, the journal in question seemed to look the part of a legitimate publication. However, after taking a closer look and reading through one of the journal’s articles (“Structural and functional brain differences in key opinion journal leaders“) it became clear that all was not as it seemed.

Neurology and Neurological Sciences: Open Access, from MedDocs Publishers, avoids a few of the more obvious red flags that indicate deceitful practices, even to neophyte researchers, but lurking just below the surface are several clear behavioral indicators common to predatory publications.


With a submission date of August 22, 2018, and a publication date November 13, 2018, the timeline suggests that some sort of peer review of this article may have been carried out. A closer examination of the content makes it evident that little to no peer review actually took place. The first tip-off was the double-take inducing line in the “Material and methods” section, “To avoid gender bias, we recruited only males.” Wait, what? That’s not how that works.

It soon became clear to our team that even a rudimentary peer review process (or perhaps two minutes on Google) would have led to this article’s immediate rejection. While predatory journals are no laughing matter, especially when it comes to medical research in the time of a worldwide pandemic, it is hard not to get a chuckle from some of the “easter eggs” found within articles intended to expose predatory journals. Some of our favorites from this article:

  • Frasier Crane, a listed author, is the name of the psychiatrist from the popular sitcoms Cheers and Frasier
  • Another author, Alfred Bellow, is the name of the NASA psychiatrist from the TV show I Dream of Jeannie
  • Marvin Monroe is the counselor from The Simpsons
  • Katrina Cornwell is a therapist turned Starfleet officer on Star Trek: Discovery
  • Faber University is the name of the school in Animal House (Faber College in the film)
  • Orbison University, which also doesn’t exist, is likely a tribute to the late, great musician Roy Orbison

And, perhaps our favorite find and one we almost missed:

  • In the “Acknowledgments” section the authors thank “Prof Joseph Davola for his advice and assistance.” This is quite likely an homage to the Seinfeld character “Crazy Joe Davola.”

Though our team had a few laughs with this investigation, they were not long-lived as this is yet another illustration of the thousands (Predatory Reports currently lists well over 13,000 titles) of journals such as this one in operation. Outlets that publish almost (or literally) anything, usually for a fee, with no peer review or other oversight in place and with no consideration of the detrimental effect it may have on science and research.

MedDocs PR card
Predatory Reports listing for Neurology and Neurological Sciences: Open Access

A more nuanced issue that deceptive publications create involves citations. If this was legitimate research, the included citations would not ‘count’ or be picked up anywhere since this journal is not indexed in any citation databases. Furthermore, any citation in a predatory journal that cites a legitimate journal is ‘wasted’ as the legitimate journal cannot count or use that citation appropriately as a foundation for its legitimacy. However, these citations could be counted via Google Scholar, although (thankfully) this journal has zero. Citation ‘leakage’ can also occur, where a legitimate journal’s articles cite predatory journals, effectively ‘leaking’ those citations out of the illegitimate scholarly publishing sphere into legitimate areas. These practices can have the effect of skewing citation metrics which are measures often relied upon (sometimes exclusively, often too heavily) to gauge the legitimacy and impact of academic journals.

When all is said and done, as this “study” concludes, “the importance of carefully selecting journals when considering the submission of manuscripts,” cannot be overstated. While there is some debate around the use of “sting” articles such as this one to expose predatory publications, not having them exposed at all is far more dangerous.