Paper tigers: when scientists hoax publishers


Stephen Fleischfresser explores the murky, but sometimes funny world of prank journal papers.


Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, providing both entertainment and academic inspiration.

LISA LAKE / GETTY IMAGES

The old maxim that academics must “publish or perish” very much holds true. The best way to get your research out there is to produce papers that appear in journals or at learned conferences – ideally both. Proper journals operate through “peer review”, meaning that nothing appears in print unless an expert in the field agrees it is of sufficient merit to be published. But then not all journals are proper journals.

Throw into the mix the common disagreements over philosophies, disciplines or academic approaches, and you have an ideal environment for academic hoaxes. Here are six of the best.

The Sokal hoax

In the 1990s, a form of philosophy commonly called postmodernism (although academics more correctly refer to it as post-structuralism) was all the rage. It often claimed, among other things, that the sciences were “socially constructed”: that is, that our scientific knowledge reflects society and its concerns, rather than nature. This obviously upset a lot of scientists, who spend a lot of time trying to understand nature.

Alan Sokal, a physicist with both New York University and University College London, was one of them – and he decided to fight back. In 1996, he wrote an article claiming that quantum gravity (the attempt to understand gravity from the perspective of quantum mechanics) was indeed socially constructed. He used a lot of postmodern jargon and produced a paper that he thought was complete nonsense. He called it Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Sheesh.

He then submitted it to a well-known postmodern journal, called Social Text, which duly published it. On the day it was published he revealed his hoax, which he said was designed to see if Social Text had high academic standards and good scholarship – a test they seemed to have failed.

However, it wasn’t really a fair test, as Social Text was not a peer reviewed journal, and Sokal later came to slightly regret the deception of his experiment, though he stood by its results.

Preying on the predators

“Predatory journals” pretend to be high quality peer-reviewed journals, when they’re really just scams out to make money. It can be difficult to tell the difference between real and predatory journals, however, and many academics have been tricked. But sometime the tables are turned.

Gary Lewis, a senior lecturer in psychology from Royal Holloway University in London, decided to prank a predatory journal that emailed him out of the blue. He concocted an utterly mad paper about British politicians and the hand they used to wipe their behinds. It argued that conservative, or right wing, politicians would wipe with their left hand, and left wing, or progressive, politicians would wipe with their right.

He described himself as a researcher from the Institute of Interdisciplinary Political and Faecal Science and told the publishers, Crimson Publishing, that the paper had been peer reviewed by Dr I P Daly. Unbelievably, Testing inter-hemispheric social priming theory in a sample of professional politicians – a brief report was published in full.

iOS writes a conference paper

Perhaps the next most important part of academic life after publishing is the conference, and there are predators here too. Some charge huge amounts, despite being organised by scammers who know absolutely nothing about the topic. And they are ripe to be pranked.

When Christoph Bartneck, an industrial designer who works on the interaction of humans and computers and robots at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, received an email asking if he’d like to submit a paper to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics, he smelled a rat – and decided to do so.

He knew nothing about physics, so he let the autocomplete function of his Apple devices do the work for him. He started sentences using words like nuclear or atomic and let the iOS software complete them. Obviously, it made no sense whatsoever: even the title was crazy – Atomic Energy will have been made available to a single source. What?

The first line of the paper is awesome: “Atomic Physics and I shall not have the same problem with a separate section for a very long long way.”

Nonetheless, within three hours the paper had been accepted and Bartneck was asked for $1099. He didn’t pay.

Pop culture themed pranks

Sometimes people really like to have fun with predatory journals. John H McCool (his real name) is an editor of scientific writing and a huge fan of the old comedy show Seinfeld. He too received an email out of the blue inviting him to submit a paper to a suspect journal, in this case the MedCrave Group’s Urology & Nephrology Open Access Journal.

He’s an editor, not a doctor – and certainly not a urologist. However, there was an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry Seinfeld’s character gets caught by a security guard while peeing in a parking lot. He pretends to have a medical condition called uromycitisis, a real condition, to get out of trouble. So, McCool decided to write a paper about a “patient” with a similar condition.

All the names in the paper come from Seinfeld characters and the whole paper was completely fake. The journal agreed to publish it if he paid $799. He also didn’t pay.

Another MedCrave publication – International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access – also got pranked. The psychology blogger known only as Neuroskeptic submitted an article about the midichlorians found in each cell that help people connect to the Force. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s straight from the Star Wars prequel movies.

It’s completely full of nonsensical Star Wars references and is basically plagiarised from the Wikipedia page on mitochondria, the small, very real organelles found in each cell of our bodies. Even worse, he admitted to doing this in the paper itself. They still published it.

Sokal revisited

While postmodernism isn’t terribly popular anymore, some still feel the need to attack the scholarship of areas of the arts and humanities. Very recently three authors – Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor from Portland State University in the US, James Lindsay, a writer with a PhD in mathematics, and Helen Pluckrose, the editor of the digital magazine Areo – spent a year trying to get hoax papers published in areas concerned with studies of race, gender, sexuality, body size and culture.

They say these areas, which they call “grievance studies”, are the descendants of postmodern thinking and therefore have very poor scholarship. Out of the many nonsense papers they wrote and submitted to a range of journals, four were published, another three accepted, four were to be revised and resubmitted, one was still under review and nine were rejected. The topics of the papers ranged from bodybuilding for the overweight to feminist astronomy.

Although they may have exposed problems with the standard of scholarship in some of these areas, some have argued that the experiment didn’t really prove anything, and critics see the way they went about it as deceptive and unethical. Boghossian is actually under investigation by his University for breaching ethics guidelines.

When seven words are all you need

This is my favourite. In 2005, computer science professors Eddie Kohler from Harvard University and David Mazières from Stanford University, both in the US, became so sick and tired of predatory journals and conferences spamming their inbox that they put together a 10-page fake article that they would automatically send off to any predators that emailed them.

The result is a simple as it is naughty. The entire article, including the graphs and flow charts, is made up of only seven words: “Get me off your f@#king mailing list”. Computer scientists found it so funny that it spread far and wide.

Things begin to get really hilarious when Peter Vamplew, an associate professor in IT at Federation University Australia, sent off Kohler and Mazières’ original paper to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.

The predatory journal had emailed him with an invitation to submit a paper, and immediately accepted it for publication. I think we can guess that it isn’t peer-reviewed.

This article appears in Issue 82 of Cosmos magazine. To subscribe, and have the latest science delivered direct to your door or inbox, click here.

Stephen fleischfresser.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Stephen Fleischfresser is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Trinity College and holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science.
  1. https://physics.nyu.edu/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html
  2. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56c77251f8baf3ae17ce0a75/t/5b51a047352f5399d14e2088/1532076108626/Gerry+Jay+Louis+hoax+paper.pdf
  3. http://www.bartneck.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/atomicphysics-2016-6992-abstract-template-iris-pear.pdf
  4. https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian
  5. https://areomagazine.com/2018/10/02/academic-grievance-studies-and-the-corruption-of-scholarship/
  6. https://slate.com/technology/2018/10/grievance-studies-hoax-not-academic-scandal.html
  7. http://www.scs.stanford.edu/~dm/home/papers/remove.pdf
  8. https://cosmosmagazine.com/issues/life-on-mars
  9. https://cosmosmagazine.com/subscribe
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