Guest blogpost by
Ryan McKay, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London
Max Coltheart, Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University
These days it is common for academics to receive invitations from unfamiliar sources to attend conferences, submit papers, or join editorial boards. We began an attack against this practice by not ignoring such invitations – by, instead, replying to them with messages selected from the output of the wonderful Random Surrealism Generator. It generates syntactically correct but surreal sentences such as “Is that a tarantula in your bicycle clip, or are you just gold-trimmed?” (a hint of Mae West there?). This sometimes had the desired effect of generating a bemused response from the inviter; but we decided more was needed.
So we used the surrealism generator to craft an absurdist critique of “impaired” publication practices (the title of the piece says as much, albeit obliquely). The first few sentences seem relevant to the paper’s title but the piece then deteriorates rapidly into a sequence of surreal sentences (we threw in some gratuitous French and Latin for good measure) so that no one who read the paper could possibly believe that it was serious (our piece also quotes itself liberally); and we submitted the paper to a number of journals. Specifically, we submitted the paper to every journal that contacted either of us in the period 21 June 2017 to 1 July 2017 inviting us to submit a paper. There were 10 such invitations. We accepted all of them, and submitted the paper, making minor changes to the title of the paper and the first couple of sentences to generate the impression that the paper was somehow relevant to the interests of the journal; but the bulk of the paper was always the same sequence of surreal sentences.
While we were engaged in this exercise, the blogger Neuroskeptic was doing something similar: we describe that work below. Both of us were of course following the honourable tradition of submissions as these by -->Peter Vamplew and Christoph Bartnek (More generally, there is a fine tradition of hoax articles intended as critiques of certain academic fields, e.g., postmodernism or theology).
What happened then?
All ten journals responded by informing us that our ms had been sent out for review. We did not hear anything further from four of them. A fifth, the SM Journal of Psychiatry and Mental Health, eventually responded “The ms was plagiarized so please make some changes to the content”. We did not respond to this request, nor to a subsequent request for resubmission.
The Scientific Journal of Neurology & Neurosurgery responded by telling us that our paper had been peer-reviewed; the reviewer praised our “scientific methodology” but chided us about our poor English (specifically, they said “English should be rewritten, it is necessary a correction of typing errors (spaces)”). We ignored this advice and resubmitted. However, the journal then noticed the similarity with the article we had submitted to the International Journal of Brain Disorders and Therapy (see below for this), so ceased production of our article.
The paper was accepted by Psychiatry and Mental Disorders: “accepted for publication by our reviewers without any changes”, we were told.
The paper was accepted by Mental Health and Addiction Research, but at that point we were told that a publication fee was due. We protested on the ground that when we had been invited to submit there had been no mention of a fee, and we said that unless a full fee waiver was granted we would take our work to a more appreciative journal. In response, we were granted a full fee waiver, and our paper was published in the on-line journal.
The SM Journal of Disease Markers also accepted the paper, and sent us proofs, which we corrected and returned. At that point, we were told that an article processing fee of US$920 was due. We protested in the same way, asking for a full fee waiver. In response, they offered a reduced fee of $520. We did not respond, so this paper, although accepted, has not been published.
The tenth journal, the International Journal of Brain Disorders and Therapy, sent us one reviewer comment. The reviewer had entered into the spirit of the hoax by providing a review which was itself surrealistic. We incorporated this reviewer’s comment about Scottish Lithium Flying saucers and resubmitted, and the paper was accepted. The journal then noticed irregularities in some (but surprisingly not all) of the references. We replaced these problematic references with citations of recent and classic hoaxes (e.g., Kline & Saunders’ 1959 piece on “psychochemical symbolism”; Lindsay & Boyle’s recent piece on the “Conceptual Penis”), along with a citation of Pennycook et al’s article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit”. The paper was then published in the on-line journal. Later this journal asked us for a testimonial about the review process, which we supplied: "The process of publishing this article was much smoother than we anticipated".
In sum: all ten journals to which we submitted the paper sent it out for review, even though any editor had only to read to the end of the first paragraph to come across this:
“Of course, neither cognitive neuropsychiatry nor cognitive neuropsychology is remotely informative when it comes to breaking the ice with buxom grapefruits. When pondering three-in-a-bed romps with broken mules, therefore, one must refrain, at all costs, from driving a manic-depressive lemon-squeezer through ham (Baumard & Brugger, 2016).”
Of these ten journals, two tentatively accepted the paper and four fully accepted it for publication. Two of these journals have already published it.
The blogger Neuroskeptic did this a little differently (see http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2017/07/22/predatory-journals-star-wars-sting/#.WXbIstP5hTF ). A hoax paper entitled “Mitochondria: Structure, Function and Clinical Relevance” was prepared. It did not contain any nonsensical sentences, as our paper did, but its topic was the fictional cellular entities “midi-chlorians” (which feature in Star Wars). The paper was submitted to nine journals. Four accepted it. One of these charged a fee, which the author declined to pay; the other three charged no fee, and so the paper has been published in all three of these papers, the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access (MedCrave), the Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Austin) and American Research Journal of Biosciences (ARJ). In order to know that this paper was nonsense, one would need some knowledge of cell biology. But our paper is blatantly nonsensical to any reader; and yet it boasted an acceptance rate very similar to that of Neuroskeptic’s paper.
What can be learned from our exercise? Several things:
(a) It is clear that with these journals there is no process by which a submission is initially read by an editor to decide whether the paper should be sent out for review, because our paper could not possibly have survived any such inspection.
(b) But nor should our paper have survived any serious review process, since any reviewer reading the paper would have pointed out its nonsensical content. Only twice did a journal send us feedback from a reviewer, one which said we should discuss Lithium Flying Saucers, and one which seemed suspect to us because its criticism of our English was expressed in such poor English.
(c) In contrast to this apparent lack of human intervention in the article-handling process, there was some software intervention: some of these journals appear routinely to apply plagiarism-detection software to submitted articles
(d) What’s in this for the journals? We assumed that they exist solely to make money by charging authors. We presume that, just as they attempt to build apparently legitimate editorial boards (see here), these journals will sometimes waive their fees so as to get some legitimate-seeming articles on their books, the better to entice others to submit.