‘CRAP’ paper accepted for publication

Philip Davis decided to test whether open access journals — which make the author pay for publication of research findings — employ first-rate peer review. Or might they be tempted to accept less than stellar manuscripts, at least as long as authors are willing to pony up the publication fee?

For the experiment, Davis, a Cornell grad student, together with a friend at the New England Journal of Medicine, used a computer program to develop a totally bogus (if grammatically correct) paper, and on January 29 submitted it to The Open Information Science Journal, which for some reason seems to be abbreviated TOISCIJ.

Two weeks ago, Davis received word that “your submitted article has been accepted for publication after peer-reviewing process in TOISCIJ.” (From the stilted language of that acceptance, you might be tempted to suspect it also had been written by computer, using grammatically challenged software.) As long as the authors sent the publisher a check for $800 (to a post-office box in the United Arab Emirates), Davis learned, his paper would be published.

You only need to read the manuscript, “Deconstructing Access Points,” to confirm it’s pure nonsense. Take the intro’s second paragraph. It starts off: “We describe a novel heuristic for the extensive unification of web browsers and rasterization, which we call TriflingThamyn. However, this method is generally adamantly opposed. Unfortunately, this method is rarely significant.” The five-page paper concludes, saying: “our research . . . explored . . . a method for virtual methodologies. To accomplish this ambition for unstable models, we constructed new metamorphic algorithms.” Yeah, right.

On June 10, Davis described the sting at Scholarly Kitchen, a blog published through the Society for Scholarly Publishing. Of the bogus paper’s putative authors — David Phillips and Andrew Kent — “Any similarity to real or fictitious, living or dead academics is purely coincidental,” Davis said. Their affiliation was also a sham: The Center for Research in Applied Phrenology — or CRAP.

Observes Davis, even if the journal’s reviewers didn’t pick up on that farsical acronym, the reference to phrenology should have raised a big red flag. After all, phrenology is the “science” of divining an individual’s personality on the basis of bumps on the scalp. It was really big in the early days of the last century. I saw a couple examples of these quackery devices several years back while visiting the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis. I think I even let one of those assess my personality.

But I digress.

Not wishing to throw away good money on his joke, Davis retracted the paper . . . and got great fodder for his blogs. Today, Nature News posted a story reporting that TOISCU’s editor-in-chief, a University of Pittsburgh scientist, was so outraged at learning about the hoax paper’s acceptance that he vowed to resign in protest.

Wow, you just can’t make up something this good.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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