[guest post by JVW]
The Chronicle of Higher Education carried a remarkable account (note: article behind a paywall but you can sign up for an account and get one freebie) by Tom Bartlett about how a journal published by the venerable academic publisher Springer found itself recently appending “editorial expressions of concern” to hundreds of “research” articles they have recently published which can almost certainly be categorized as, to use a fancy publishing industry term, utter bullshit:
A peer-reviewed journal recently published a mind-bending paper. It begins with a highly technical section about groundwater seepage before delving into a lively discussion of dance training. The paper shifts back and forth between the two topics, informing the reader about rare-earth elements before urging dancers to “tighten buttocks” during warm-ups. There are tables and graphs, citations and hyperlinks. It’s all very sober and scientific-seeming and yet, at the same time, completely bonkers.
The paper appeared last month in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, which is one of several thousand journals put out by the publishing giant Springer Nature. If this was just one weird paper in an obscure journal, it probably wouldn’t be noteworthy. But hundreds — 412, to be exact — of equally bizarre or suspicious papers have popped up in the same journal in recent months. One examines college sports-injury insurance along with rainfall on the Loess Plateau, in China. Another deals with sea-level height and aerobics teaching. In what purports to be a legitimate geosciences journal there are at least five papers on swimming and seven on basketball.
Is this a prank, meant to highlight the ubiquity of mindless postmodernism in today’s academy like the Sokol Hoax of a quarter-century ago and the more recent Sokol Squared controversy at Portland State University? It doesn’t seem so. For one thing, the groundwater/athletics papers are a bit too arch and dull to actually be funny in a parodic way, jumbled and incoherent though they may be, and they don’t particularly deliver a lot of the Foucaultian and Derridan nonsense upon which the Sokol hoaxes were built. Also, nobody as of this writing has stepped up to take credit for the massive spamming of this journal. What other clues might we have?
[. . . ] Some of the papers, though not all, were published as part of a special issue of the journal edited by Sheldon Williamson, a professor of electrical, computer, and software engineering at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Williamson told Retraction Watch that his email account had been hacked.
That part is just delicious isn’t it? The computer science professor whose email is hacked. Or was it?
When I spoke with Williamson, he said he didn’t know for sure that his email had been hacked, but he assumed it had been. He said he was just as perplexed as everyone else about how so many ridiculous papers, with his name listed as the responsible editor, had made it into the journal. “I don’t know which ones are legitimate and which ones are not,” he said. As for what happened here, he said: “I believe people are desperate to publish. I don’t know. It could be anything.”
It helps if you attempt to view Professor Sheldon Williamson of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology as played by the late great Peter Sellers. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the narrative:
[. . .] I also spoke to Abdullah Al-Amri, the founder and editor in chief of the journal, and a professor of geophysics at King Saud University, in Saudi Arabia. He assured me that he reads every paper that appears in the journal, which is remarkable considering that it publishes two issues each month. In September alone, the journal published 276 papers. At that clip, Al-Amri would be reading roughly 10 papers a day, every day, including weekends.
“You have to believe there are some people hacking the journal,” he told me. “I know which papers I have to approve, and which papers I have to disapprove. I know my job for the last 30 years. But if some people sign into the Springer system on my behalf, I don’t know how this happens.”
And that’s a pretty good insight into the editorial processes of modern academic journals. Is it any wonder that so much of their output later turns out to be either intellectual piffle or outright fraudulent? Here’s some more bad news for Springer:
What happened with the geosciences journal is extreme, but it isn’t unique. Springer also recently found that another of its journals, Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, had published 24 papers that appear to be nonsense. In May, yet another Springer journal, Current Psychology, retracted more than a dozen articles that had been part of a special issue due to “problems with editorial handling and peer review.” Again, some of the articles seemed to have little to do with the journal’s topic and, as detailed in notes on each article, were riddled with errors and methodological problems.
You will be elated (or perhaps exasperated) to learn that Springer is not alone in suffering the humiliation of publishing journals which carry debased and decrepit work:
And it’s not just Springer. Elsevier, another journal-publishing giant, recently issued editorial expressions of concern about some 400 articles that had fallen “beneath the high standards” for one of its journals. Meanwhile, Taylor & Francis retracted a special issue because the guest editor had been “impersonated by a fraudulent entity.” One lesson here seems to be that handing the keys of a journal over to an unpaid guest editor might be a bad idea.
Speculation is that much of this bogus output comes from China, where PhD students are required to publish in a journal before they are awarded their doctoral degree, and current PhDs are paid bonuses by the state for being published in [ahem, ahem] prestigious academic journals. China has managed to infiltrate and subvert a great deal of English-language academia, so at some point the world’s leading universities — especially those here in the United States — are going to have to ask themselves the difficult question of whether all of that Chinese tuition and research money is worth debasing your academic standards.
Mr. Bartlett clearly gets this, and he is brave enough to call out the unsustainable and unnecessary (those are my words, not his) growth in graduate studies in marginal topics that has taken place over the last few decades, leading to esoteric research into subjects that virtually no one cares all that much about. Though this phenomenon is most prevalent in the social sciences, where buttressing the dominant ideological narrative and trendy woke posturing are far more important than using the discipline to solve long-standing problems, this whole scandal with the Arabian Journal of Geosciences shows that the sciences can also produce its share of meaningless dreck.
[. . .] [T]his strange episode brings to mind broader questions about academic publishing, including whether way too much subpar research is being pumped out each year and whether peer review is all it’s cracked up to be. I spoke to one of the PubPeer commenters, Nicholas Wise, who helped uncover the nonsense papers in the geosciences journal. He asked a question that’s worth contemplating: “Is anyone actually reading this journal?”
As long as we continue to expand graduate programs to the extent where second-rate minds are in faculty positions mentoring third-rate students who are doing research in minutiae simply because it’s a field as of yet unexplored, expect this kind of flim-flam to continue. Dialing back the issuance of questionable advance degrees which provide a financial windfall to the university community without really benefiting society as a whole is an educational reform that is long overdue.