The dodgy science of wiping your backside

William Reville: Predatory journals can contaminate scientific literature

There has been a recent explosion of “predatory” science journals that aggressively solicit research papers from scientists who pay to have the papers published.

Science is now a massive and expensive international project and one of the, perhaps inevitable, downsides of this success is the growth of dishonest practices. I have written before about the unreliability of a substantial fraction of the current scientific literature, ranging from outright fraud to slap-dash work prematurely published that cannot be replicated by other scientists.

There has also been a recent explosion of “predatory” science journals that aggressively solicit research papers from scientists who pay to have the papers published. These journals claim they use the highest standards of peer review, but most subject submitted papers to little or no review. This undermines the credibility of scientific publishing.

This problem is highlighted by a recent hoax perpetrated by Dr Gary Lewis, senior lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Lewis submitted a ridiculous fictitious research paper to a typical predatory journal to test "how low the bar for publication might be". He tells the story in The Conversation (July 20th, 2018), an independent news/commentary website produced by academics and journalists.

Nine politicians were interviewed, including a Boris Johnski' and a `Teresa Maybe`

A well-known theory in social psychology, called unconscious social priming, proposes that words or concepts can prime our behaviour, eg saying words associated with old-age to people, such as “bingo”, makes them walk more slowly afterwards. Based on this concept, Lewis composed a fictitious study to test the hypothesis that right-wing politicians wipe their bottoms with the opposite hand to that used by left-wing politicians. Since the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa, Lewis specifically hypothesised that right-wing politicians wipe their bums with their left hands and left-wing politicians wipe with their right hands.


‘Sophisticated’ statistical analysis

A fictional research assistant asked known left- and right-leaning members of the UK House of Parliament what hand they used. Nine politicians were interviewed, including a “Boris Johnski” and a “Teresa Maybe”, but only eight answers were usable because one subject, a “Nigel F Arage”, rudely told the researcher to “bog off”.

The data collected from these eight politicians, after "sophisticated" statistical analysis, fully confirmed the hypothesis. Lewis wrote up the paper – "Testing Inter-Hemispheric Social Priming Theory in a Sample of Professional Politicians – a Brief Report" by Gerry Jay Louis, Institute of Interdisciplinary Political and Faecal Science, England, and submitted it for publication.

A prompt email reply informed him his manuscript was under review. A few days later the journal informed him it was accepted for publication and asked him to pay $581 publishing costs. Lewis pleaded that he had no funds and the journal waived all charges.

Promptly published

The article was promptly published, but when The Conversation contacted the publisher for comment the article was retracted. The publisher told The Conversation: "We strictly follow double blinded peer process for all the articles we receive." Lewis received no peer review comments from the journal. But, in any event, the idea that this paper was reviewed at all is simply not credible. Was the paper even read? You don't have to be an expert to see that the paper is entirely ridiculous – eg N = 8. I urge you to read this short paper here – it is a laugh-out-loud piece and I congratulate Dr Lewis on his comic talent.

Dodgy work published in journals can then be quoted as scientific evidence in public debates

Of course, nobody claims all papers published in predatory journals are worthless. Some of these journals operate conventional review processes and, also, some researchers submit high-quality papers to predatory journals thinking they are submitting to journals using conventional reviewing procedures. More than 5,000 UK scientists have published articles in the past five years in these journals.

But, as Lewis points out, the overall problem with predatory journals is they contaminate the scientific literature by presenting many studies of unacceptable quality as rigorous scientific reports. Dodgy work published in these journals, for example on climate change, genetic modification, alternative medicine and so on, can then be quoted as scientific evidence in public debates.

There is no shortage of science journals that employ rigorous peer review. The international scientific academies should prepare and publicise a list of all these journals, keep it updated, and make it plain it is expected that all serious scientific research will be published in these outlets.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork