Some Stories of Journals Behaving Badly

Turns out money can buy a lot of things, even an expression for π as an algebraic number. Image via flicker CC: reynermedia.

Hoax papers have a long and time-honored history. Ten years ago a group of students from MIT wrote a program that randomly generated totally nonsensical computer science papers. One of their bogus papers was accepted by a conference and it caused enough of an uproar to prompt IEEE to pull its sponsorship of the conference. But this wasn’t before Springer had already accepted 120 papers generated by the program.

Needless to say, this caused academics and the bloated body of academic publishing to take a long look at themselves and wonder what the heck was going on with their standards. It’s no secret that predatory publishers exist. These are publishing outfits that usually charge a high fee for publication, may (or may not) promise some sort of referee process, and often have names like “Journal for Advances of Algebra, Number Theory, Biology, Chemistry and Electrical Technology.” Sometimes they’re easy to spot, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they ask you to submit a pdf to a gmail address, but sometimes they don’t.

But as we saw above with the 120 papers retracted by the venerable publishing house, Springer, detrimental and predacious practices aren’t just restricted to the obviously pay-to-play scam journals.

The blog Math Scholar recently wrote an interesting essay about a slew of predatory journals that published papers (eight of them!) claiming that π=(14-√2))/4. The author rightly argues that this is a terrible thing. The author speaks of the “collapse of peer-review,” and I just need to express my own mildly divergent view at this point. The peer-review process has not collapsed; peer-review is still a very good and necessary thing. The problem is just that journals are promising peer-review and not doing it. It’s a bit like using nacho cheese Doritos as evidence against the declining quality of cheese. We can’t besmirch all cheese based on the fact that those promethean deities of food science over at Frito-Lay use the word “cheese” on their devil corn chips.

Fields Medalist turned blogger Tim Gowers is at the forefront of a movement to call out the predatory practices of the so-called legitimate journals. In a recent post Gowers makes the case for uprooting existing journals and replanting their entirety — editorial boards, content, reputation –in an open-source context leaving behind empty hulls called “zombie journals.” This move was recently carried out by the journal formerly known as the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics.

Unsurprisingly, math is not the only field feeling leery of its publishers. The field of gender studies also saw an interesting dust-up this summer with the publication of a hoax article (ostensibly) about toxic masculinity followed up by a take-down of the field of gender studies and its publishers by the authors of the hoax. The whole saga is interesting in our context because it points to the blurry line between legitimate and illegitimate publishing. The blogger Ketan Joshi does a nice job teasing out some of the universal-yet-nuanced complications of this particular hoax. In particular, Joshi gets at the question: how damning should a hoax paper be to the publishes versus the field itself? It’s an interesting read.

And just for fun, in case you have any secret messages that you need to send, the same group from MIT that wrote the hoax paper generator also have a program that can encode a secret messages as a bogus spam conference announcement. And that, my dear most esteemed sir/madam, is certainly one way to guarantee that nobody will be interested in reading your email.

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One Response to Some Stories of Journals Behaving Badly

  1. H. F. Mattson, jr. says:

    There was a wonderful hoax by Alan Sokal (sp?) consisting of nonsense masquerading as profundities of Derrida type. A journal accepted it. I think they refereed it. Sokal is a physicist. This was maybe 10 years ago.

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