‘Publication Laundering’: How Publishers Happily Accept Fake And Nonsense Conference Papers In The Pursuit Of Profits


from the smouldering-nonsense dept

Techdirt has written many times about the dysfunctional state of academic publishing. The main issue is that academics do most of the work required to publish a paper, but the publishers reap most of the benefit. Profit margins are extremely high for top publishers — typically 30-40%. And yet academics are routinely forbidden from sharing their own papers, because they are pressured to assign copyright in them to the publisher, which uses the control that affords to block wider access to knowledge.

An eye-opening post by James Heathers on Medium reveals that the greed and rot in the world of academic publishing goes even deeper. This time, it involves the world of “proceedings” journals. These purport to be a collection of papers presented at a conference. It is the conference that applies to publish the proceedings, and that chooses external editors to handle the peer review. But, as Heathers explains, there is now a new kind of “publication laundering” based on proceedings journals, which works as follows:

Hold a conference, fake or real or somewhere in between. Assert a topic, a location (virtual would make this even easier), prepare a shell website, assign guest editors, etc.

Write to a Proceedings journal and request they publish your conference submissions. Shove your tongue firmly in your cheek, and tick all the boxes that promise you’ll follow the process, peer review the submissions, vet the editors etc. as above.

Write a series of smouldering nonsense papers.

Sell authorship to those papers.

Salt the duff papers through the real conference submissions if there are any (and presumably any real/fake admixture is possible).

‘Complete’ the conference, and batch all the submissions up nicely with the right formatting, send to Proceedings journal.

Wait for publication.

Collect money from ‘authors’ upon publication.

There are many advantages to this approach. The items are generally published as closed access, which restricts readership and thus scrutiny. These fake proceedings journals can claim they are “peer reviewed” because the conference is trusted to do this, and nobody checks. Another advantage is that proceedings can be published really quickly compared to the slower forms involving genuine peer-reviewed papers, and so seem to provide a really good service.

In his long and fascinating post, Heathers goes on to examine one proceedings journal in detail — Materials Today from Elsevier, probably the biggest and most successful academic publisher. Wikipedia defines materials science as:

The interdisciplinary field of materials science covers the design and discovery of new materials, particularly solids. The field is also commonly termed materials science and engineering emphasizing engineering aspects of building useful items, and materials physics, which emphasizes the use of physics to describe material properties.

Here are some of the subjects that Heather discovered among 35,000 conference papers in Materials Today:

There are 550 entries on FISH. From material science conferences.

There are 355 entries on COVID. From material science conferences.

Herbal soup. Whole body vibration. Laser measurement of pumpkins. Detecting financial fraud. Terrorism and its effects on tourism. Noise pollution. Social media sentiment analysis.

Other papers examined by Heathers are not just off-topic, but incomprehensible nonsense, perhaps automatically generated in some way. It’s a great piece of investigative journalism, well-worth reading in full. It exposes a huge and largely unknown problem with academic publishing, where the approach seems to be “ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies” when it comes to ascertaining whether the conference proceedings papers are genuine are not.

Belatedly, Elsevier is taking action:

Elsevier is retracting 500 papers from a journal dedicated to conference proceedings because “the peer-review process was confirmed to fall beneath the high standards expected,” Retraction Watch has learned.

The post on Retraction Watch notes that other publishers too are finally starting to grapple with the problem:

IOP Publishing has retracted 850 papers that fall into that category, and the Association for Computing Machinery has retracted more than 300.

It scandalous it has taken this long to begin addressing this serious problem. It is further confirmation that the academic publishing industry is not fit for purpose, and requires a radical re-boot.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or Mastodon.

Filed Under: academic publishing, conferences, elsevier, materials science, materials today, medium, proceedings, retraction watch, scrutiny

Companies: elsevier

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