The epidemic of bogus science

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The writer is a scientific commentator

The 1996 paper is now legendary in academia. Transcending Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Interpretation of Quantum Gravity, penned by mathematician Alan Sokal, was published in the Journal of Cultural Studies. He claimed that physical reality is a social and linguistic construct.

It was an ornately written parody: a spoof with heavy jargon and plausibility, intended to pander to the prejudices of lazy reviewers and expose the flaws in the academic establishment. The fake paper, which targeted postmodern intellectuals talking about scientific questions, confirmed Sokal’s suspicions – now at University College London – that the canon of human knowledge was vulnerable to rogue infiltration.

The hoax seems comically bizarre today compared to the fraud crisis plaguing scientific journals. Wiley Publishing announced this week that it will close 19 journals, some of which have been linked to widespread research fraud. In the past two years, according to reports, it has retracted more than 11,000 research papers. Wiley and other publishers, such as Springer Nature, are battling the counterfeiting epidemic.

But they must fight. Without due diligence, science may suffer a serious blow to its reputation. With so many scientific challenges ahead – climate change, artificial intelligence, energy security, pandemics – this represents a loss of trust that humanity cannot afford.

Scientific publishing is surprisingly profitable, worth about $28 billion annually worldwide. While major journals charge huge subscriptions, others will publish for a fee, after undergoing peer review. This system feeds on a “publish or perish” research culture, where academics are ranked by grant, tenure and promotion according to how often they publish and how often they are cited.

The result is a feverish competitive climate in which authorship has become a commodity, now brazenly promoted on the open market. Nick Wise, an engineering researcher at the University of Cambridge, collects ads by so-called author brokers and posts them on X under the handle @author_for_sale.

In a 2022 interview with Retraction Watch, a website that monitors suspect papers (for inadvertent errors as well as fraud), Wise detailed how brokers connect with unscrupulous academics: “There’s this whole economy, this ecosystem of Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, And Telegram.” Channels for selling paper authorship, selling citations, selling book chapters, and selling patent authorship. They all pollute the pool of knowledge.

Authors, of course, need papers to put their names on. This is where the “paper mill” comes in, an industrial-scale process that often uses artificial intelligence to mass produce paper (many of these factories are located in China). They are then submitted to multiple journals in the hope that some will get past overworked reviewers.

Investigators use anti-fraud software to detect flawed offers, such as “tortured statements” published by AI-generated papers to fool plagiarism detectors. Artificial intelligence becomes “false consciousness”; Breast cancer is distorted into a “bosom danger.” Other red flags include unexpected collaborations between authors; unrelated checklists; and collections of papers that cite each other as incest. “My hunch is that most fraud goes undetected,” Wise told me.

Meanwhile, publishing companies are opening fraud departments and trying to catch culprits who submit identical papers. But it is a constant struggle: brokers formulate their advertisements more timidly; AI writes more persuasive research papers.

As Sokal correctly pointed out in his 2008 book What’s behind the hoax?Maintaining the integrity of science is an existential matter. “Clear thinking, combined with respect for evidence… is of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century,” he wrote. “This is an arms race that scientific investigators must win.”

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