On Scientific Journals as a Bulwark Against Research Misconduct

By Patrick O’Leary

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our society regulates the integrity of scientific research in an era of fierce competition for diminishing grants and ultracompetitive academic appointments. When I shared a draft paper on this topic a few weeks ago, several colleagues urged me to think more about the role played by academic journals, so I was interested to see this article in Nature last week about a recently uncovered criminal scam defrauding two European science journals and countless would-be authors. It caught my attention because it seems to belie the notion that the journals and the honest scientific community are sophisticated enough actors to be trusted to root out the fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism that constitute “research misconduct” under Federal law. Needless to say, it takes a different kind of expertise to discern scientific misconduct than to uncover a more mundane phishing scam like the one these cons were running, but the anecdote stands as a nice reminder of the fallibility even of great minds.

Elsewhere in the same (special) issue of Nature, journals’ capacity to police the academy was further called into question by a story about a wave of new, predatory, open-access journals that the article calls “the dark side of publishing.” These journals apparently exist to collect fees from authors but fail to adhere to the rigorous standards of scientific publishing and review. In a recent post on his website tracking such journals, Jeffrey Beall (of the University of Colorado Denver) argues that the prevalence of such journals directly “enables, facilitates, and increases the rate and occurrence of author misconduct.” After all, when journals with reputable sounding names will publish rubbish for a fee (and when it is hard to differentiate the good open-access journals from the bad in a rapidly burgeoning field), there’s an opening for those who would engage in “plagiarism, self-plagiarism and duplicate publication, image and data manipulation, honorary authorship, ghost authorship, and salami slicing, the breaking up of research into ‘least publishable units.’” Whether the proliferation of bad science in bad journals actually has the potential to infect the broader scientific record isn’t by any means obvious, and the debate about open-access publishing continues, but the trends seem troubling enough to warrant some serious thought, particularly for those who believe in peer reviewed publication as a principal bulwark against misconduct.

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