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  • Writer's pictureLutz Kraushaar

Fake Science: Deviant Science? Or Deviant Journalism?

Today, the German media are treating us to science-gate.

A story about pseudoscientific studies, predatory journals and their publishers.

With the typical subliminal insinuations of an entire science community being untrustworthy.

Do they have a point? Or don’t they?

I believe they don’t. But I am biased.

"Biased" is something I shouldn’t be as a scientist.

But remaining unbiased is so damned difficult when some media hacks and talking heads rehash an old, well-known and controlled phenomenon to taint an entire profession’s credibility.

Had those hacks just searched google for “predatory publishing” or “predatory journals” they could have discovered that phenomenon 8 years ago.

Wikipedia has devoted an article on the matter.

But claiming “investigative journalism” is a lot cooler than reading Wikipedia.

And English is also not part of every German journalist’s toolbox. Otherwise, they would have discovered Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory journals and publishers.

Already in 2010.

Since then, the University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher keeps his list of questionable journals painstakingly up to date.

No scientist who takes his research work and academic career serious will publish his manuscripts in any of those journals.

Every one of my colleagues would rather not publish at all than work with any of those journals.

Not as an author and not as an editor.

But I also know why predatory publishing thrives.

Part of the blame falls on the reputable publishers and their business model.

It is insanely attractive to anyone who is after profit margins that exceed even those of Google.

That’s what the media monkeys either don’t get, or don’t tell their consumers.

You’ll immediately see it when you compare the science publishers’ business model to that of a regular newspaper publisher.

The latter employs and (hopefully) pays its writers.

The publisher also needs to employ the editors.

And he has to do the selling and marketing.

None of that burdens the science publisher.

His authors are the ones who hand in their manuscripts.

His editors are the authors’ peers who review the manuscripts, and who help improve them before these manuscripts will be published. If they get published at all.

It’s called peer review. And nobody gets paid for it.

Neither the authors nor the editors.

How many weekends do we spend reviewing papers.

Voluntarily, of course.

Because the publishers flatter us about our competencies.

And because we feel that we have to give back to the science community on whose members’ reviews of our own manuscripts we depend.

Until this point, the science publisher has zero costs.

Other than what is necessary to manage the flood of manuscripts vying to be published.

And here comes the real genial part of this business model.

The research work that is the subject of a manuscript has typically been paid for by some public institution.

These institutions are mostly the same that finance our universities and their libraries which have to pay the subscription fees for these journals.

In other words: those who pay for the research, have to pay for the right to read the papers that describe and present the research results.

No wonder the business model “scientific publishing” churns out better profits than even Google.

And we scientists are doing all the work.

That there is no shortage of willing authors is due to academia’s career model. Publish or perish is what describes it in three words.

And mind you, getting a manuscript to be published is not a walk in the park.

Even in low-impact-factor journals the majority of manuscripts received will not make it from the assistant editor’s desk though the peer review and to publishing.

That’s why we often need to submit our manuscripts to several journals. Not at the same time, mind you.

Because journals frown on parallel submissions, and sanction it heavily if we dare to do it.

Despite all these obstacles, publishing in predatory journals is not an option for the overwhelming majority of us.

Not least because of pride. Nobody wants to refer to a paper that has been published in a journal that colleagues immediately recognize as a pseudo-journal.

Only journalists don’t know that.

Which bespeaks deviant journalism rather than deviant science.

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