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.
“Somewhere along the way, academics started realizing that there were journals that weren't doing what they were claiming to be doing,” Berryman explained. “They claim to do this peer review, but it's either not being done at all or it's a false peer review — like a peer review theater.”
These predatory publishers, many based in Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan, prey on scientists’ egos, sending flattering emails and requesting that they submit their research to the journal.
When a scientist agrees — sometimes because they’re duped, sometimes because they are just looking for an easy way to pad their publication record — the “journal” publishes it online almost immediately, often without even reading the article. The journal then asks for a hefty publication fee — something scientists oblige because they’re used to making these payments to legitimate journals.
“These fees can get into the thousands of dollars, and then they publish 100 or more articles per year,” said Berryman. “They're making tons of money.”
That money typically comes out of scientists' research grants from publicly funded institutions like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, meaning taxpayers are footing the bill for this elaborate fraud.
It’s a clever scheme because operating one of these scams requires little more than the cost of hosting a website.
“Some of these predatory journals are just one person behind a computer putting this out there on the web, so it's almost zero overhead,” Berryman said.
So far, Cabells has found almost 15,000 fraudulent science journals, and the number grows every day.
Fake scientific journal scams do more than steal money
But unlike a normal email scam, predatory journal scammers do more than just steal people’s money. They can also contribute to a particularly pestilent form of disinformation.
“If articles aren't being peer-reviewed then we don't know for sure if this is good research,” Berryman said. “One article, off the top of my head, said that 5G causes COVID — like spontaneous growth of COVID in the body.”
That ludicrous article was published in a predatory journal and its results were shared thousands of times on social media and even made it onto the Austin-based conspiracy theory website Infowars.
If a group wants to spread disinformation, predatory journals allow anyone to launder disinformation through a mill that turns a loony idea into a scientifically verified fact — or at least something that appears that way.
To combat the problem of fake science, what Berryman does for Cabells is sort out the wheat from the chaff—the “real” journals from the impostors — by analyzing their website for signs of predatory practices. This allows the scientists and libraries that subscribe to their service to know whether or not a journal is legitimate.
“We’re like the journal police,” she said.
It’s not just Cabells that’s fighting back against these scammers, however. Scientists themselves are taking the law into their own hands by deliberately submitting nonsense to suspected predatory journals to prove that the publications don’t practice peer review.
Josh Gunn, a professor of communication studies at the University of Texas, submitted one such paper to the "Open Access Library Journal” when the journal wouldn’t stop pestering him with emails. Gunn’s article is written using convincingly sounding academic jargon, but is utter gibberish.
One characteristically opaque line reads: “ … we embody the existential peripheries of our de-material freaked archival existence, such as the tautological utopian exigence of the Pope ‘on’ Twitter.”
Despite the obvious flaws, the journal quickly published the paper. Gunn repeated the stunt a year later with a different predatory journal. Upon publication, he was asked to wire hundreds of dollars via Western Union to somewhere in Bangladesh — something he declined to do.
While Gunn’s article was meant to be silly, he said other articles published in these journals “could result in the loss of life,” if people accepted potentially incorrect information as truth.
“I have been invited to publish in medical journals,” said Gunn, who has a doctorate in rhetorical studies. “I have absolutely no background in these fields. If I wrote something for these fields I would worry someone might take it seriously.”
“It’s so dangerous,” she said. “If articles aren't being peer-reviewed then we don't know for sure if this is good research, if it was done correctly.”
Berryman confirmed that the “Open Access Library Journal” was in their database of predatory journals for violating a number of their 74 different indicators that suggest that a journal is predatory, including hiding information about their parent company and publishing articles by the same author over and over again.
“It's amazing the trash that the journals will publish,” she said.
While it’s uncommon for a predatory journal article to be shared widely online, it does happen. Berryman said that checking who is associated with a particular publication can help you root out a predatory journal. Because genuine scientists want nothing to do with these publications, the journals often make up members of their editorial boards, or use scientists that are no longer alive.
“We found ‘Yosemite Sam’ who is ‘a Professor at Yale’ on an editorial board once. That was fun,” Berryman said.
Still, sorting the good from the bad— the dubious journals from the legitimate tomes — takes practice, which is where Berryman and her team come in. The job affords a certain romantic satisfaction in a world that’s rarely so cut-and-dry.
“I love my job. And, and it really makes me feel like I'm contributing to making research better,” Berryman said. “Maybe if I can warn people away from submitting to predatory journals then there won't be as much garbage out there.”
RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR
Cabells offers a list of signs that can be red flags for a source of information that is not credible.
— The journal is falsely claiming to be included in any academic journal indexing service or citation database such as Cabells, Scopus, Journal Citation Reports, DOAJ, etc.
— The editorial board contains fake names or names with credentials/affiliations that are made up or falsified.
— Editorial board members are unaware of their position on the journal’s editorial board.
— The journal promises very rapid publication or unusually quick peer review (e.g., publication in less than four weeks of submission).
— There is no peer review policy or the peer review policy does not clearly define who reviews submissions, how many reviewers read each submission, and the possible outcomes of the peer review process.©2021 Gannett Co., Inc. Visit at statesman.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.