We as a society increasingly face disturbing and disruptive challenges to unfettered access to honest, accurate and reliable information. Unfortunately, in an era of

… we can no longer accept prima facie that the information provided to us from news organizations, the internet and other sources is true, reliable and accurate.

Of particular concern to myself and others, fake news and information extends to the technical and scientific communities. Scientific publishing is a hugely profitable business which leads, inevitably, to corruption. Thousands of so-called “predatory journals” contaminate the scientific and technical literature.

These “journals” actively manufacture or solicit and publish fake journal articles in the biomedical and other domains, solely for the purpose of monetary greed. Literally anyone can publish a paper – be it invented from scratch, copied/plagiarized from other sources, or even created automatically by algorithms – thus padding their CVs and resumes.

Notable efforts to monitor the quality of scientific publications include

Notably absent from that list is Scholarly Open Access. From 2010 - Jan 2017 UC-Denver Librarian Jeffrey Beall provided an important and much-needed resource: an extensively curated list of predatory journals. It was a fabulous effort, that was subsequently squashed under somewhat mysterious circumstances, as described here:

“… When accessed last, Scholarly Open Access had a list of over 1,155 allegedly predatory open access publishers. Last week, Scholarly Open Access, which was actively being used by the academic community to get information on predatory journals/publishers, was taken down by Jeffery Beall without any explanation or prior update. Although the decision to pull down the site and its contents was a personal decision, many critics speculate that this move to shut down the website was due to threats and politics. …”

Nature also commented on this issue, as does Wikipedia.

Regardless of the cause(s) of that closure, it seems clear given (1) the money and thus power afforded to predatory publishers, (2) legal threats, and (3) venomous vitriol directed at Mr. Beall including this highly offensive website – itself a predatory mirror (.net) of Mr. Beall’s now offline (.com) website) – that the personal liability leveraged against Mr. Beall outweighed the service he was willing or able to provide to the scientific community. [There is more on that despicable anonymous web site in this commentary.]

Websites of that nature, which attempt to distort the truth, perfectly illustrate attempts on the internet to corrupt fact and knowledge!

Let’s not mince words: the bullshit contained in that highly defamatory website stand in stark contrast to Mr. Beall’s impressive Google Scholar profile and C.V. / academic accomplishments! Those attacks are also clearly refuted in the use of Mr. Beall’s list in this Scholarly Kitchen blog post. Scholarly Kitchen, of course, being the official blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

‘Nuff said?! Hardly! … Keep reading …

[Aside: Beall’s list lives on as others take up the task, e.g., List of Predatory Journals, and BeallsList.weebly.com/]


c&h-academia.gif


Selected Excerpts

… from my files, in no particular order. Please refer to the source documents for the complete background and content.

$cientific Publishing Hegemonie$

  • Five companies control more than half of academic publishing

    A study at the University of Montreal shows that the market share of the five largest research publishing houses reached 50% in 2006, rising, thanks to mergers and acquisitions, from 30% in 1996 and only 20% in 1973. “Overall, the major publishers control more than half of the market of scientific papers both in the natural and medical sciences and in the social sciences and humanities,” … Several factors help to explain the incredible profitability of this industry. In particular, the publishers do not have to pay for the articles or their quality control, which are freely provided by the scientific community. Furthermore, the publishers have a monopoly on the content of journals, which, in digital format, can be published as a single copy whose access is then sold to multiple buyers.

    … The scientific community has begun to protest against the aggressive commercial practices of the major publishers, said Larivière, citing the example of the “Cost of Knowledge” campaign, which encourages researchers to stop participating as authors, editors, and reviewers of Elsevier journals. …

  • How much did your university pay for your journals?

    What is your university paying for academic journal subscriptions? The answer can be surprisingly hard to find. Universities buy access to most of their subscription journals through large bundled packages, much like home cable subscriptions that include hundreds of TV stations. But whereas cable TV providers largely stick to advertised prices, universities negotiate with academic publishing companies behind closed doors, and those deals usually come with nondisclosure agreements that keep the bundled prices secret. … [more here (pdf)] university_journal_subscriptions.png

  • More Fake Journals From Elsevier

    “Last week, we learned about Elsevier publishing a bogus journal for Merck. Now, several librarians say that they have uncovered an entire imprint of ‘advertorial’ publications. Excerpta Medica, a ‘strategic medical communications agency,’ is an Elsevier division. Along with the now infamous Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, it published a number of other ‘journals.’ Elsevier CEO Michael Hansen now admits that at least six fake journals were published for pharmaceutical companies.” [More here: Merck published fake journal]

  • Elsevier journals - some facts: a detailed account …

  • The cost of academic publishing

    … we don’t know how much academic publishing costs. Historically, the costs of scientific research publication have been covered through subscriptions to academic journals in which the research has been published. Alternative business models are beginning to develop, but the majority of research around the world is still published in journals to which subscriptions are required.

    Individual academics are largely protected from the costs of access to these journals. Libraries at universities are largely responsible for managing institution wide access to journals, and through JISC negotiate these subscription costs. And then libraries are not allowed to tell anyone what these costs are. Libraries are placed under huge amounts of pressure not to release this data, and in the case of Elsevier, they are explicitly forbidden to by non-disclosure agreements in the contracts they have to sign.

    Today, Tim Gowers has released data showing that 19 Russell Group Universities alone spend over £14.4 million (excluding VAT) on subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier alone. Without a doubt you should read his blog post which has far more detail and background; but the headline figures are: [ … SNIP! … ]

    UPDATE 28 April 2014: Imperial have released their subscription data - £1,340,213. This takes the Russell Group to a total of £15.7 million in subscription fees to Elsevier alone with data related to four universities still outstanding.

Journal Hijacking

  • Feature: How to hijack a journal

    Even by the standards of Internet scams, the scheme is brazen. According to a tip sent to Science, fraudsters are snatching entire Web addresses, known as Internet domains, right out from under academic publishers, erecting fake versions of their sites, and hijacking their journals, along with their Web traffic. … The usual method is to build a convincing version of a website at a similar address – www.sciencmag.org rather than www.sciencemag.org – and then drive Web traffic to the fake site. But snatching the official domain is an insidious twist: Unsuspecting visitors who log into the hijacked journal sites might give away passwords or money as they try to pay subscriptions or article processing fees. And because the co-opted site retains the official Web address of the real journal, how can you tell it’s fake? … journal_hijacking.png

    • Journal hijacking: Supplemental data

      In July 2015, Science received a tip about a new abuse of online scholarly journals: Hijackers are snatching the official Web domains out from under publishers and, in some cases, cloning the journal websites. The exploit is particularly damaging because the Web address continues to be endorsed by lists of reputable journals such as Web of Science, curated by Thomson Reuters. How can a researcher visiting a hijacked site know that it is fake? An investigation by Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon identified 24 recently snatched journal domains, two of which now host fake journals created by hijackers:

      [ … snip … ]

Predatory Journals

  • Predatory journals recruit fake editor

    … in 2015, we created a profile of a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust and applied on her behalf to the editorial boards of 360 journals. Oszust is the Polish word for “a fraud.” We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included, among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences. We also created accounts for Szust on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter, and made a faculty webpage at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The page could be accessed only through a link we provided on her CV.

    The profile was dismally inadequate for a role as editor. Szust’s ‘work’ had never been indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases, nor did she have a single citation in any literature database. Her CV listed no articles in academic journals or any experience as a reviewer, much less an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine. Even the publishing houses were fake.

    We sent Szust’s application to 360 journals, 120 from each of three well-known directories: the JCR (journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports), the DOAJ (journals included on the Directory of Open Access Journals) and ‘Beall’s list’ (potential, possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals, compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall; Beall took down his list in January this year for unknown reasons, after we had completed our study). … In many cases, we received a positive response within days of application, and often within hours. Four titles immediately appointed Szust editor-in-chief. No JCR journal accepted Szust. By comparison, 40 predatory and 8 DOAJ journals appointed her as an editor (see ‘Who embraced the fake?’). … nature-editorial-sting.png

  • Illegitimate journals scam even senior scientists

    The e-mail’s subject line read, “Trouble with a duplicate publication.” As soon as it landed in my inbox, I knew it was important: the sender, an accomplished senior scientist, had flagged it as urgent. His message described a troubling encounter with a predatory journal.

    Earlier that year, he had received an e-mail invitation to submit an article to a journal with a title and remit matching his expertise. The journal described itself as new and in search of content for a forthcoming issue. Shortly before this, the scientist’s research fellow had pulled together an oral presentation on that very topic, and so it seemed like a good opportunity for him to convert the work into a published article.

    They drafted a manuscript and submitted it. Soon, along with receiving some modest feedback, they were informed that the article had been accepted. After resubmitting the paper with minor revisions, they were sent a bill - US$979 - to cover the costs of publishing. Alarm bells went off. The invitation had not indicated any fee. The authors were wary of the journal’s integrity, and had no funding to pay the article-processing charge. They rescinded their submission and ignored a spate of follow-up invoices. They next submitted their work to a familiar, legitimate journal. It was accepted after peer review and revision, and the authors thought that their brush with a predatory journal had ended.

    Months later, the fellow discovered the article ‘published’ on the predatory journal’s website. Their question to me: what should they do now? …

  • Open-access index delists thousands of journals

    A leading index of open-access journals is set to shrink by more than one-quarter after delisting around 3,300 titles as part of an effort to exclude questionable and inactive publishers. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which at the beginning of the year listed more than 11,000 open-access academic journals, announced two years ago that it would be tightening its standards for inclusion. It asked every journal in its index to provide more details about their operations so it could ensure that they adhere to basic publishing standards.

    The crackdown came after the index was criticized for including ‘predatory publishers’ - journals that profess to publish articles openly, often after charging fees, but that are either outright scams or do not provide expected services such as a minimal standard of peer review or archiving. …

  • The Problem of Publication-Pollution Denialism [pdf; summarized here]

    The world is facing a huge threat from pollution. The scientific community seems unable or unwilling to do anything about the problem and appears to be in a state of denial. The pollution crisis I’m describing is not the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to an accumulation of greenhouse gasses. It is not the tragedy of plastic materials accumulating in the oceans. It is not the air pollution that is overwhelming many major urban areas and contributing to respiratory and other diseases in the local populations. It is, instead, the pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing. If the medical and scientific communities continue to remain in publication pollution denial, the trustworthiness, utility, and value of science and medicine will be irreparably damaged. …

Questionable Peer-Review

  • Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?

    On 4 July, good news arrived in the inbox of Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. It was the official letter of acceptance for a paper he had submitted 2 months earlier to the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, describing the anticancer properties of a chemical that Cobange had extracted from a lichen.

    In fact, it should have been promptly rejected. Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.

    I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine. Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. Beyond that headline result, the data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.

  • Faked peer reviews prompt 64 retractions

    A leading scientific publisher has retracted 64 articles in 10 journals, after an internal investigation discovered fabricated peer-review reports linked to the articles’ publication. Berlin-based Springer announced the retractions in an 18 August statement. In May, Springer merged with parts of Macmillan Science and Education - which publishes Nature - to form the new company Springer Nature.

    The cull comes after similar discoveries of ‘fake peer review’ by several other major publishers, including London-based BioMed Central, an arm of Springer, which began retracting 43 articles in March citing “reviews from fabricated reviewers”. The practice can occur when researchers submitting a paper for publication suggest reviewers, but supply contact details for them that actually route requests for review back to the researchers themselves.

    The Springer investigation began in November 2014 after a journal editor-in-chief noticed irregularities in contact details for peer reviewers. These included e-mail addresses that the editor they suspected were bogus but were accompanied by the names of real researchers, says William Curtis, executive vice-president for publishing, medicine and biomedicine at Springer. The investigation, which focused on articles for which authors had suggested their own reviewers, detected numerous fabricated peer-review reports. Affected authors and their institutions have been told about the investigation’s findings, says Curtis.

  • A new record: Major publisher retracting more than 100 studies from cancer journal over fake peer reviews

    Springer is retracting 107 papers from one journal after discovering they had been accepted with fake peer reviews. Yes, 107.

    To submit a fake review, someone (often the author of a paper) either makes up an outside expert to review the paper, or suggests a real researcher - and in both cases, provides a fake email address that comes back to someone who will invariably give the paper a glowing review. In this case, Springer, the publisher of Tumor Biology through 2016, told us that an investigation produced “clear evidence” the reviews were submitted under the names of real researchers with faked emails. Some of the authors may have used a third-party editing service, which may have supplied the reviews. The journal is now published by SAGE.

    The retractions follow another sweep by the publisher last year, when Tumor Biology retracted 25 papers for compromised review and other issues, mostly authored by researchers based in Iran. With the latest bunch of retractions, the journal has now retracted the most papers of any other journal indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters. In 2015, its impact factor - 2.9 - ranked it 104th out of 213 oncology journals.

  • Publishing: The peer-review scam

    Most journal editors know how much effort it takes to persuade busy researchers to review a paper. That is why the editor of The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry was puzzled by the reviews for manuscripts by one author - Hyung-In Moon, a medicinal-plant researcher then at Dongguk University in Gyeongju, South Korea.

    The reviews themselves were not remarkable: mostly favourable, with some suggestions about how to improve the papers. What was unusual was how quickly they were completed - often within 24 hours. The turnaround was a little too fast, and Claudiu Supuran, the journal’s editor-in-chief, started to become suspicious.

    In 2012, he confronted Moon, who readily admitted that the reviews had come in so quickly because he had written many of them himself. The deception had not been hard to set up. Supuran’s journal and several others published by Informa Healthcare in London invite authors to suggest potential reviewers for their papers. So Moon provided names, sometimes of real scientists and sometimes pseudonyms, often with bogus e-mail addresses that would go directly to him or his colleagues. His confession led to the retraction of 28 papers by several Informa journals, and the resignation of an editor.

    Moon’s was not an isolated case. In the past 2 years, journals have been forced to retract more than 110 papers in at least 6 instances of peer-review rigging. What all these cases had in common was that researchers exploited vulnerabilities in the publishers’ computerized systems to dupe editors into accepting manuscripts, often by doing their own reviews. The cases involved publishing behemoths Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa, and they exploited security flaws that - in at least one of the systems - could make researchers vulnerable to even more serious identity theft. “For a piece of software that’s used by hundreds of thousands of academics worldwide, it really is appalling,” says Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who has used some of these programs to publish and review papers.

    [ … SNIP! … ]

  • Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Corruption of peer review is harming scientific credibility”

    A Wall Street Journal op-ed warning emphatically about problems with scientific peer review begins by summarizing an especially extensive case of scientific fraud (also outlined in a Physics Today Online News Pick):

    Academic publishing was rocked by the news on July 8 that a company called Sage Publications is retracting 60 papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control, about the science of acoustics. The company said a researcher in Taiwan and others had exploited peer review so that certain papers were sure to get a positive review for placement in the journal. In one case, a paper’s author gave glowing reviews to his own work using phony names.

    The op-ed appeared a few days after the New York Times ran the commentary “Crack down on scientific fraudsters” by the cofounders of the blog Retraction Watch, which had brought the 60-retractions scandal into wide public view. Citing other cases, that piece argued that the penalties for scientific fraud are generally insufficient, with too little repayment of misused funding, with too little professional ostracism of offenders, and with resignations forced - and criminal charges filed-too rarely.

    The WSJ op-ed’s author, Hank Campbell, condemns the “absence at many journals” of “sound peer-review practices” and cautions that some “errors can have serious consequences if bad science leads to bad policy.” Linking peer-review problems to the problem of irreproducibility (nonreplicability) of research results, he invokes the authority of National Institutes of Health leaders Francis Collins and Lawrence Tabak. They began a January Nature commentary by reporting that a “growing chorus of concern, from scientists and laypeople, contends that the complex system for ensuring the reproducibility of biomedical research is failing and is in need of restructuring.” They agree with that chorus and declare that recent evidence showing this “irreproducibility of significant numbers of biomedical-research publications demands immediate and substantive action.”

    Collins and Tabak stipulate, “Let’s be clear: with rare exceptions, we have no evidence to suggest that irreproducibility is caused by scientific misconduct.” But they also observe that science “has long been regarded as ‘self-correcting,’ given that it is founded on the replication of earlier work.” They add, “Over the long term, that principle remains true. In the shorter term, however, the checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled.” Collins and Tabak outline, and Campbell summarizes, measures to improve replicability of research results.

    Collins and Tabak also cite the October 2013 Economist article “Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab,” which asserted, “Peer review’s multiple failings would matter less if science’s self-correction mechanism - replication-was in working order.” That piece carried the thumbnail summary “Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not.” It also contained this paragraph:

    Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong. But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.

    [ … SNIP! … ]

Miscellany: Robo-Publishing | Copy-Cat Publishing | …

  • Do you know whether this story was written by a human? Computer generated vs. journalistic content

    A recent study investigates how readers perceive computer-generated news articles. The advent of new technologies has always spurred questions about changes in journalism – how it is produced and consumed. A recent development which has come to the fore in the digital world is software-generated content. A recent article investigates how readers perceive automatically produced news articles vs. articles which have been written by a journalist. …

    The results suggest that the journalist-authored content was observed to be coherent, well-written and pleasant to read. However, while the computer generated content was perceived as descriptive and boring, it was also considered to be objective and trustworthy. Overall readers found it difficult to tell which articles had been written by journalists, and which were software-generated. Perhaps most significant in Clerwall’s study is the discovery that there were no substantial differences in how the different articles were perceived by readers. …

  • Hoax-detecting software spots fake papers

    It all started as a prank in 2005. Three computer science Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn, and Dan Aguayo-created a program to generate nonsensical computer science research papers. The goal, says Stribling, now a software engineer in Palo Alto, California, was “to expose the lack of peer review at low-quality conferences that essentially scam researchers with publication and conference fees.”

    The program - dubbed SCIge-soon found users across the globe, and before long its automatically generated creations were being accepted by scientific conferences and published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals. But SCIgen may have finally met its match. Academic publisher Springer this week is releasing SciDetect, an open-source program to automatically detect automatically generated papers. …

    SCIgen uses a “context-free grammar” to create word salad that looks like reasonable text from a distance but is easily spotted as nonsense by a human reader. For example

    Cyberneticists agree that semantic modalities are an interesting new topic in the field of programming languages, and theorists concur. This is a direct result of the development of web browsers. After years of compelling research into access points, we confirm the visualization of kernels. Amphibious approaches are particularly theoretical when it comes to the refinement of massive multiplayer online role-playing games.

    SCIgen also generates impressive-looking but meaningless data plots, flow charts, and citations. The trio named SCIgen in honor of the World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics (WMSCI), an annual event that they suspected was fraudulently claiming to use human peer reviewers to vet submissions. Indeed, two of their nonsense papers were accepted by WMSCI.

    The trio then put SCIgen online as a free service, encouraging researchers to “auto-generate submissions to conferences that you suspect might have very low submission standards.” And submit they did. Over the past decade, researchers have pulled numerous pranks on journals and conferences that claim to use human peer reviewers. Variations on SCIgen have appeared for other fields, from mathematics to postmodern theory. (This author continued the tradition, but using a different fake paper-generating method.)

    The pranks were tolerated by publishers until 2013, when 85 SCIgen papers [pdf] were discovered in the published proceedings of 24 different computer science conferences between 2008 and 2011. More were soon discovered, and 122 nonsense conference papers were ultimately retracted by Springer, the academic publishing giant based in Heidelberg, Germany, and by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, based in New York City.

    Rather than being created as pranks, it seems that many of the fake papers were coming from China where they were “bought by academics and students” to pad their publication records, says the lead researcher behind the investigation, Cyril Labbé, a computer scientist at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France. Later that year, an investigation by Science uncovered an underground market [pdf] for fake academic credentials, in which some peddlers may have used SCIgen to save themselves the effort of writing “authentic” fake papers by hand.’

    [ … snip … ]

  • For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. Echoing the last part of the entry above is this article, that notes:

    Klaus Kayser has been publishing electronic journals for so long he can remember mailing them to subscribers on floppy disks. His 19 years of experience have made him keenly aware of the problem of scientific fraud. In his view, he takes extraordinary measures to protect the journal he currently edits, Diagnostic Pathology. For instance, to prevent authors from trying to pass off microscope images from the Internet as their own, he requires them to send along the original glass slides.

    Despite his vigilance, however, signs of possible research misconduct have crept into some articles published in Diagnostic Pathology. Six of the 16 articles in the May 2014 issue, for instance, contain suspicious repetitions of phrases and other irregularities.* When Scientific American informed Kayser, he was apparently unaware of the problem. “Nobody told this to me,” he says. “I’m very grateful to you.”

    Diagnostic Pathology, which is owned by Springer, is considered to be a reputable journal. Under Kayser’s stewardship, its “impact factor” - a crude measure of a journal’s reputation, generated by number of times the article is cited in the published scientific literature-is 2.411, which puts it solidly in the top quarter of all scientific journals tracked by Thomson Reuters in its Journal Citation Reports, and 27th out of the 76 ranked pathology journals.

    Kayser’s journal is not alone. In the past few years similar signs of foul play in the peer-reviewed literature have cropped up across the scientific publishing world - including those owned by publishing powerhouses Wiley, Public Library of Science, Taylor & Francis and Nature Publishing Group (which publishes Scientific American).

    The apparent fraud is taking place as the world of scientific publishing - and research-is undergoing rapid change. Scientists, for whom published articles are the route to promotion or tenure or support via grants, are competing harder than ever before to get their articles into peer-reviewed journals. Scientific journals are proliferating on the Web but, even so, supply is still unable to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for respectable scientific outlets. The worry is that this pressure can lead to cheating.

    The dubious papers aren’t easy to spot. Taken individually each research article seems legitimate. But in an investigation by Scientific American that analyzed the language used in more than 100 scientific articles we found evidence of some worrisome patterns - signs of what appears to be an attempt to game the peer-review system on an industrial scale.

    For example, one of the articles published in the May 2014 Diagnostic Pathology looks on the surface like a typical meta-analysis of the peer-reviewed literature. Its authors - eight scientists from Guangxi Medical University in China-assess whether different variations in a gene known as XPC can be linked to gastric cancer. They find no such link, and concede that their paper isn’t the final word on the matter:

    “However, it is necessary to conduct large sample studies using standardized unbiased genotyping methods, homogeneous gastric cancer patients and well-matched controls. Moreover, gene-gene and gene-environment interactions should also be considered in the analysis. Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the XPC polymorphisms and gastric cancer risk.”

    A perfectly normal conclusion for a perfectly ordinary paper. It is nothing that should set off any alarm bells. Yet, compare it with a paper published several years earlier in the European Journal of Human Genetics (which is owned by Nature Publishing Group), a meta-analysis of whether variations in a gene known as CDH1 could be linked to prostate cancer (PCA):

    “However, it is necessary to conduct large trials using standardized unbiased methods, homogeneous PCA patients and well-matched controls, with the assessors blinded to the data. Moreover, gene-gene and gene-environment interactions should also be considered in the analysis. Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the CDH1−160 C/A polymorphism and PCA risk.”

    The wording is almost identical, down to the awkward phrase, “lead to our better, comprehensive understanding.” The only substantial differences are the specific gene (CDH1 rather than XPC) and the disease (gastric cancer rather than PCA).

    [ … SNIP! … ]

  • A flurry of copycats on PubMed [local copy (pdf)]

    CISCOM is the medical publication database of the Research Council for Complementary Medicine. Available since 1995, it used to be mentioned in 2 to 3 papers per year, until Feburary 2014 when the number of hits started to skyrocket. Since then, “CISCOM” surfs a tsunami of one new hit per week. But this is not what drew my attention, such waves are not unheard of on PubMed. For instance, the progression of CRISPR/Cas9, is more impressive. It was the titles of the hits that convinced me that something fishy was going on: all of them are on the model “something and something else: a meta-analysis”.

    ciscom_trend.png

    The strange pattern caught my attention, but I somehow missed its significance and put this in the back of my mind. It was only later that Lucas convinced me to take a serious look at the case.

    We immediately noticed that the authors of all the studies are Chinese. Our first guess was that a Chinese research institute suddenly went berserk on systematic meta-analyses. We expected to find few groups of authors, or a certain geographical clustering, but there were 32 CISCOM meta-analyses, written by 28 different groups located in several cities (4 groups authored two papers). The studies are about various diseases (Crohn’s disease, coronary artery disease, cancer…) and various risk factors, going from genetic variants to aerobic exercise. There did not seem to be any special focus in the CISCOM meta-analyses (neither any obvious link with CISCOM).

    The real shock came when we downloaded the papers. Most are behind paywalls, so we could access only 25 of them. There was no need for more, the pattern was very clear from the third study. The papers have exactly the same structure, with the same figures in the same order. The last figure of each paper is a “Begger’s funnel plot”, featuring a surrealistic fusion of Begg and Egger (Colin Begg and Matthias Egger both gave their name to a test for publication bias). What struck me the most was the similarity in the aesthetics of the figures, the same line widths, the same colors, the same shapes etc. As an illustration, the 8 panels below are Figure 1 taken from different papers.

    Graphical similarities between the CISCOM meta-analyses

    It was also easy to check that some parts of the text were partly plagiarized. Below is a sentenced taken from the introduction of one of the papers.

    [ … SNIP! … ]

Fake Degrees

  • ‘1,000% unacceptable’: Marketplace confronts college professor about his fake degree

    For more than a decade, Dubravko Zgrablic has pursued his “calling” by teaching thousands of students at several post-secondary institutions in Toronto. He says those schools include Centennial College, the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and Seneca College, where, according to his LinkedIn profile, he currently teaches computer applications and project management courses.

    Ask him where he earned his master’s degree in computer science, however, and he has trouble remembering the school’s name. “Forgetting those … things, I’m always messing up,” he said. “Down in the states.”

    There was a long silence before two undercover Marketplace journalists posing as potential Seneca students reminded him: “Almeda.” “Almeda,” he said, referring to Almeda University, which a Marketplace investigation has exposed as a fake online school, that sold fake degrees before recently going offline.

    Contrary to the sales pitch on the former website, Almeda University, which was supposedly based out of Boise, Idaho, had no official accreditation and no faculty. It was simply a service where customers could trade “life experience” and money for an official-looking but phoney degree and transcript.

    [ … SNIP! … ] Axact Marketplace obtained business records of a Pakistan-based company called Axact, considered the world’s biggest diploma mill. Almeda University is one of dozens of phoney schools connected to the company.

  • Related:

Parting Shots …

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