Arthur Caplan on the Problem of Publication-Pollution
For many doctors the following is familiar: receiving requests from unknown journals with English names asking them to submit papers for publication for a fee. Some of these are pseudo-scientific journals that dilute the academic and ethical standards of peer-reviewed publications. Such predatory journals were the subject of Dr. Arthur Caplan’s commentary “The Problem of Publication-Pollution Denialism” in the May 2015 Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Caplan points out that the pollution of scientific and medical publications by plagiarism, fraud and predatory publishing threatens their trustworthiness, utility and value. Many such author-must-pay publishers, though appearing to be legitimate, accepted obviously hoax, phony and nonsensical articles for publication. It has been estimated that up to 25% of all open-access journals fall into this scam, predatory category. Many of these journals are headquartered in China.
“The problems generated by phony, predatory journals that use substandard or no peer review are enormous”, says Caplan. Those who equate research success with quantity rather than quality have driven the unscrupulous to pad their curriculum vitaes with articles published by such questionable journals. “Predatory, pay-to-publish, non-peer reviewed journals flood disciplines with bad or fake science, making it hard, much as light pollution does, to see the real stars.” This undermines and weakens the impact of legitimate publications. Unfortunately, misconduct by researchers also contributes to the pollution problem. In 2010, a meta-analysis of survey results found that 14% of researchers had either falsified or fabricated data and 72% had participated in some kind of fraudulent practice. Yet, Caplan asserts, “Fraud, however, pales in comparison to plagiarism as a means of polluting science and medicine.” Plagiarism, despite various software programs designed to detect it, is apparently on the rise.
Caplan concludes, “All these polluting factors detract from the ability of scientists and physicians to trust what they read, devalue legitimate science, undermine the ability to reproduce legitimate findings, impose huge costs on the publication process, and take a toll in terms of disability and death when tests, treatments, and interventions are founded on faulty claims.”
Of significant concern is that such journals have or will become the backdoor for unethically acquired scientific knowledge related to transplant medicine and unethical organ procurement. Transplant related articles that have been denied publication due to ethical concerns in reputable internationally established journals can then enter the academic journal market via this backdoor. Our academic scientific society needs to create measures to deny and reject such papers so as to ensure that unethically acquired knowledge is not published.
Caplan’s commentary ends with a plea, “The time for a serious, sustained international effort to halt publication pollution is now. Otherwise scientist and physicians will not have to argue about any issue – no one will believe them anyway.”