Is Maggie Simpson, rarely known to utter a word as she stumbles through the antic world of Bart and Homer, a scientist of repute? Is primary school teacher Edna Krabappel her cherished collaborator? Yes, because they recently had a paper accepted by the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems. (Take that, Lisa!) Another publication not long ago accepted a groundbreaking paper called "Get Me Off Your F---ing Mailing List," complete with explanatory diagrams.
The academic imperative "publish or perish" is so well known that people with no intention of entering scholarly life are familiar with it – no tenure for you, my friend, without at least a handful of citations. The journals should be reputable and selective, as all the best ones are, but in the crunch quantity might just trump quality. Alas, now comes this new storm on the horizon of university careerists: predatory journals.
Nobody inside academic life will consider it news that the number of journals, in almost every field, has risen in the post-print era. The good ones remain, and sometimes even retain a print version, but they are now flanked by opportunistic newcomers who prey on the desires of tenure-seeking scholars.
That, in itself, is no big deal. A new journal can publish work as accomplished as an established one, assuming the usual practices of double-blind peer review: The reviewers, assumed to be experts in the field, don't know the identity of the author, and the author doesn't know who the reviewers are. In my field, philosophy, acceptance rates at good journals run to about 5 per cent, or one in 20 of submitted pieces, and rare is the article that goes into print without extensive revisions suggested by the reviewers.
Predatory journals are a whole different beast. Instead of you seeking their grudging approval, they come after you. And then they demand money.
The basic practice has a long history in scholarship: the self-published book or article sounds a kind of undertone of desperate woe in the traditions of intellectual inquiry. Even good scholars have fallen prey to the temptation of "publishers" offering to repackage their dissertations in book form (my first book!), and are happy to pay the associated fees. But predatory journals are a more aggressive version of this desire-parasitic side market.
Critics say that all of academia is a species of Ponzi scheme, but this is the real thing. Predatory journals will publish anything, and then demand payment – $459 in the case of Simpson and Krabappel's "Fuzzy, Homogeneous Configurations." In fact, the text was submitted by engineer Alex Smolyanitsky, who generated pages of nonsense using a program called SCIgen: "We removed a 8-petabyte tape drive from our peer-to-peer cluster to prove provably 'fuzzy' symmetries's influence on the work of Japanese mad scientist Karthik Lakshminarayanan." I know, right?
Other SCIgen-fashioned articles have been submitted, and accepted, at a host of scientific journals. In February of this year, two scientific publishers (Springer and IEEE) were forced to retract 120 accepted articles. Tom Spears, at the Ottawa Citizen, submitted a nonsensical article on soil science and Martians to 18 online journals; it was accepted by eight of them. Science magazine reporter John Bohannon sent a paper about a cancer-fighting lichen to 340 journals, and was accepted by 60 per cent of them. Using IP addresses, Mr. Bohannon found that the journals were mostly based in India and Nigeria.
These exposures are different from celebrated pranks like Alan Sokal's hoax on the journal Social Text. In 1996, Mr. Sokal, a distinguished physicist, submitted a nonsense paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" for the journal's special issue on the "Science Wars." Those wars, such as they were, concerned the ontological status of scientific claims. Mr. Sokal's point was to reveal the bafflegab he thought dominated the humanities, and affirm science's pre-eminent position as an arbiter of truth. "[A]n external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being," Mr. Sokal wrote, is "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook."
It was a good hoax, but the times have overtaken Mr. Sokal's assumption that science speaks truth while the humanities dither. There is no hegemony of reason, alas, and published research means less and less, even in the so-called hard disciplines. The good news is that we can still expose the worst of these depredations; the bad news is that nobody, least of all active researchers, can rest easy about the authority of scientific papers. Caveat lector!
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.