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.

1a

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.

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

  1. ‘To avoid gender bias, we recruited only males.” Wait, what? That’s not how that works.” WAOW !!!! And then don’t ACTORS and CELEBRITIES have the right to publish ? I saw a conference in which Kim Kardashian was the president of the conference.More seriously; I’ve always thought ( except for few cases ) that a “moderately” serious and intelligent researcher would EASILY spot these shenanigans !!! I guess predatory journals have a niche in which some find their happiness. .

  2. One puzzling aspect to this issue of predatory journals is their apparently thriving nature. Why are they doing so well? You cannot moralise about the publishers in predatory journals, in my view. This is just a business proposition. They are making money. So why not? The real culprit is the indulgent nature of the academic and scientific system. All over the world there must be promotion and hiring committees that are taking publications in predatory journals at face value, without checking citation and other metrics that would quickly show them up. Unfortunately the open science and open access ethic – which I support, with important safeguards – has provided a shield for predatory publishing. The harm occurring in this field is almost getting to the point where it might be judged to be outweighing the benefits of the open science/open access movement. We recently learned that pilots in Pakistan can scam their way through their certificates, with deadly results. The problem in science is that the outcomes of predatory publishing are insufficiently catastrophic to reap a response from the community and its leaders. So, we will be stuck with this phenomenon for a long time!

    1. The culprit is US !!! Yes us , if we do not publish in these ” journals” they wouldn’t thrive , as easy as that !!! But , some so called researchers have found a way to clim the ladder by paying .I said it and will again say it : any medium brain sized author would spot a “fishy” publication.If they do not , that means they are simply stupid.Boycott them , they will simply disappear

    1. I don’t disagree. But it staggers me that there are institutions where publication in predatory journals are taken at face value. One must assume that these are institutions low down the hierarchy where scientific principles are poorly enforced because in the end such an indulgent attitude towards publishing in predatory journals must come at a great cost where less competent personnel gain promotion to senior positions.

      1. My guess is that many bona fide institutions have not encountered (or at least detected) this kind of fraud before, and they wouldn’t know how to check CV’s for it. Gotta get burned before you become more careful….

        1. This is a fascinating discussion. In my experience in academic publishing, authors publish papers in predatory journals due to expediency, ignorance or opportunism, and while any kind of publish-or-perish system exists in academia predatory journals will be there to satisfy these needs. However, I do think you can criticise predatory publishers, as they cover up what they actually do (ie take money for offering services they claim to deliver but don’t). We do have to acknowledge that authors come from very different social and academic cultures, so we perhaps should understand the background to their decision-making before being too judgemental.

          1. Sorry. Didn’t wish to appear judgemental, except that most of what these enterprises do is semi-fraudulent, and those who play along with these semi-fraudulent cannot escape some responsibility for fostering their success. That being the case, these outfits start to undermine the standards of science and scholarship – and those who use them are party to that as well, and institutions that rewards such behaviour are also culpable.

  3. ‘Predatory’ journals exist because the scientific establishment has ceased to value truth for its own sake, and has turned the dispassionate search for knowledge into a commercial business.

    Now that people’s careers, incomes and families are dependent on commercial indicators such as citation ratings, no one should be surprised if sharp business practice becomes the norm….

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