AUSTIN, Texas — Like the Texas Rangers of yore rounding up gangs of cattle rustlers and gunslingers, another Texas outfit led by Kathleen Berryman is after a different kind of outlaw: fraudsters in the wild, wild west of internet email scams.
But the scammers Berryman tracks down run a sophisticated scheme targeting the one group of people you’d think would know better: scientists.
The scam is simple: Create a fake academic journal and encourage scientists to submit their work to it. When they do, request that the researchers pay them hundreds of dollars in fees. Then, rake in up to $150 million by some estimates — most of it supplied by taxpayers — while doing nothing to advance the enterprise of science, and doing quite a bit to damage it.
And they are true outlaws: These journals have been found in violation of U.S. law. In one case, a federal judge in 2019 ordered journal publisher Srinubabu Gedela and his companies — OMICS Group Inc., iMedPub LLC, Conference Series LLC — to pay more than $50.1 million to resolve Federal Trade Commission charges that they made deceptive claims to academics and researchers about the nature of their conferences and publications, and hid steep publication fees.
Berryman and her small team of fraud detectors at the Beaumont-based firm Cabells International are some of the only people in the world doing anything about these sharks. Universities, libraries and individual scientists can pay Cabells for access to their database of journals.
The database has two parts: one half is analytics about real journals (ranking them, breaking them into fields, how to submit papers to different journals and such), the other half is “predatory reports,” their list of journals that they have proven are fake.
They're painstakingly combing through the online profiles of scientific journals to find and flag “predatory” publishers. But it remains to be seen whether their work will disrupt this multimillion-dollar scam that has, at times, sown disinformation on a massive scale.
Email scams ask scientists to submit their research to the fake journal
Since the second half of the 20th century, the system of sharing scientific knowledge has followed a set script. A scientist does an experiment, writes up their results, and then sends the document to an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. These journals then vet the paper by sending it to a few of the scientist’s colleagues. This process is known as peer review. If the colleagues think it’s up to snuff, the paper will get published in the next issue of the journal along with a handful of other studies that also made the cut.
But in the last few decades, something changed.