If we ever needed a timely reminder that in the world of academic publishing not all scientific journals are created equal, we now have it.
To test just how low the quality bar is for exploitative predatory journals, a prominent neuroscientist has tricked four publications into accepting a totally fake paper about midi-chlorians – the entirely fictional life forms in Star Wars that make 'the force' possible.
Neuroskeptic, a working neuroscientist who anonymously blogs about science for Discover, set up the sting, submitting the nonsensical study to nine scientific journals – only to have four of them accept it.
The journals approached are among those sometimes described as predatory in science circles because they exploit researchers into paying fees to have their papers published in them.
But in this case, three of the publications just went ahead and published the fake paper straight up – clearly not having read or checked it first – even without requiring payment of a fee.
Another, the American Journal of Medical and Biological Research, also accepted the paper, but demanded a $360 fee before publishing it.
The absurd thing, as Neuroskeptic explains, is the average human being would only need about five minutes (or less) with the paper to see that it's entirely bogus and riddled with inexplicable Star Wars references.
For a start, it's written by none other than the decidedly fishy-looking Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin, and while at a very quick scan it might pass for a chemistry discussion, that's only because Neuroskeptic scraped the content of the Wikipedia page on mitochondrion (real) and reworded it, changing references to midi-chlorian/midichlorian (not so real).
To further make things obvious – just in case any 'peer-reviewers' working for the publications were actually paying attention – Neuroskeptic dropped in entire passages ripped off wholesale from Star Wars, inserting them not-so-subtly into the text.
"Midichlorians-mediated oxidative stress causes cardio-myopathy in Type 2 diabetics. As more fatty acids are delivered to the heart, and into cardiomyocytes, the oxidation of fatty acids in these cells increases," the paper reads, sounding kind of legit and science-y, but then suddenly:
"Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? I thought not. It is not a story the Jedi would tell you. It was a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichloria to create life."
If that wasn't enough to twig the peer-reviewers, an admission in the study that the "majority of the text in the current paper" was in fact stolen from Wikipedia surely should have let them know something was up?
But again, nothing – at least not on the part of the journals that accepted the paper.
Some of the other journals who didn't accept the paper did pick up on the Star Wars references, but puzzlingly Neuroskeptic was asked to simply revise the text and resubmit it – including suggestions to revert the spelling of "midichlorians" back to "mitochondria". Really?
As funny as it is to see this dysfunctional peer review process laid bare by such overt fakery, it also highlights a serious breach that hurts science – because the existence of this kind of publishing scam exploits real researchers who are trying to get their work noticed – and brings the whole notion of peer review into disrepute.
"It's just a reminder that at some 'peer reviewed' journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all," Neuroskeptic explains.
"This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review."
The 'findings' – such as they are – are reported in the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access, the Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (PDF), and the American Research Journal of Biosciences.