Scam OA Journals: Who's Fooling Whom?

Two years ago I was dismayed to find that a pair of crank authors had managed to slip a pseudo-archaeological paper into a respected geography journal. Last spring they seemed to have pulled off the same trick again, this time with an astronomy journal. Pseudoscience is after all a smelly next-door neighbour of interdisciplinary science.* When I realised that the second paper was in a bogus Open Access journal, I drew the conclusion that the authors had fallen for a scam, paying the OA fee to get published in a journal whose academic standing they had severely misjudged. That's still my belief. The authors were fooled.

But check out this paper in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health put out by the dodgy OA publishers Hindawi that I wrote about the other day: "Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth's Surface Electrons". Here a quintet of purveyors of pseudoscientific health-care gear have paid the OA fee to get an appallingly bad in-house study into the journal. I'm pretty sure they know exactly how little academic credibility the JEPH has. Instead, they are likely banking on the inability of their customers to judge that credibility. The authors are buying a veneer of scientific solidity for their products. And their alt-med customers are fooled.

In the long run, of course, this will return to bite scam OA publishers in the butt. They can make some money selling column space in their journals to cranks and scammers as detailed above, but sooner or later this will impact their reputation. Science and Antiquity have a very good reputation thanks to their long record of publishing good research. When a new OA journal is started, it has a nul reputation or a somewhat positive one if its title is similar to that of a respected journal. But with time, such a journal will acquire a negative reputation because of the crap it publishes, and people will get wise to it. And then, Dear Reader, once the revenue stream has shrunk far enough, you can be pretty sure that the OA back issues of that journal will mysteriously drop off-line.

Harriet Hall the SkepDoc drew my attention to the JEPH paper in her column in Skeptic Magazine 17:4.

* Pseudoscience tends to get into academic publication venues in situations where it's hard for the editors and peer reviewers to evaluate it. This is particularly common with interdisciplinary science, where as an archaeological editor I may find it hard to tell if e.g. linguistic content is solid or not. Also, it is extremely common outside of academic venues for amateur scholars to range freely and fearlessly across disciplinary boundaries, as seen e.g. in Thor Heyerdahl's onomastic speculations. ("The Vanir came from Lake Van in Turkey.") Good interdisciplinary science is when people from different disciplines collaborate, not when specialists in one discipline naïvely try their hands at another.

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All the kids in Africa and Southeast Asia who are infested with hookworm will no doubt be relieved to learn that, on the positive side, at least they've been connected to all those electrons.

By John Massey (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013 #permalink

Your blogmate Orac, who specializes in deconstructing alt-med claims, refers every now and then to some study that the alt-med types have managed to get published, and it's striking how many of these studies are published, like this one, in dodgy OA journals. Not that the traditional publishing world is free of this nonsense; witness the infamous Elsevier title Medical Hypotheses.

Unfortunately, the low barriers to access in the internet age mean that once people catch on that the Journal of Nocturnal Aviation is a scam, its publisher can easily replace it with the Brooklyn Journal of Bridge Sales, or the Journal of Florida Real Estate, or some other such title. Indeed, I expect that this is already happening to some extent.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013 #permalink

It would be fun if you could get some of the conspiracy theorists to publish in some bogus journal about political science and document their madness. Glen Beck -himself the king of conspiracy theories- recently lambasted one of his rivals as a kook. That other guy had originated the "9/11 truth" movement and believes a small liberal elite (sponsored by George Soros and the Bilderberg Group) wants to kill off 90% of the world's population and rule the world, using life-extension technologies to make their reign endless.
And that kook is in turn sane compared to the British bloke who started the meme about shape-shifting alien "Reptilians" ruling the world. All these weirdos have believers. And are allowed to vote, and presumably own firearms.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink