In my occupation, tenure and promotion are big deals. University professors who want to get tenure or be promoted are usually expected not only to conduct research, but also to publish that research in academic journals. And in the last decade or so, the traditional model of academic journal publishing has been disrupted by the emergence of online-only journals and by open access journals.
This disruption has resulted in some good changes. It has led to alternatives to the process of anonymous peer review of journal submissions – a process which is supposed to be objective, but often isn’t. It can shorten the often lengthy time between the submission of a manuscript and the publication of the finished article. And it has also provided wider access to information that might formerly have been subscription-only or password-protected.
But the disruption has also led to the rise of so-called “predatory journals”. These are primarily online journals which have little or no academic legitimacy. They exist solely to make money for their owners, and they make that money by charging excessive “article processing fees”. Unfortunately, these journals prey on vulnerable researchers. That includes researchers who are desperate for publications to put on their resumes; researchers who are not confident in their writing ability; and researchers who can’t identify journals where a publication will hurt, not help, their careers. (Jeffrey Beall, who blogs about predatory journals, has an excellent list of criteria that he uses to define a predatory journal; you can find the list here.)
Predatory journals regularly send out spam emails soliciting manuscripts. I receive at least three of these emails every week. Other than being annoyed by the spam, I had never really thought too much about how these journals work. But at the end of last year, two astounding stories made the rounds. One was about a predatory journal accepting a manuscript that consisted of nothing but the words “Get me off your f***ing mailing list”. The other was about a predatory journal accepting a manuscript of computer-generated nonsense that was allegedly co-authored by two characters from The Simpsons.
These stories blew me away. How could this happen? Wouldn’t disrespectable journals at least try to appear legitimate by rejecting blatantly fake papers? How could even a disrespectable journal miss such obvious signs of fakery? So I decided to conduct an experiment of my own.
The outcome: Two journals accepted a manuscript for publication that was not only nonsense, but also plagiarized nonsense.
Here’s how it happened.