Everyone’s favorite biomedical ethicist uncle, Arthur Caplan, appeared on Science Friday last week to talk about bloat and pollution.1 And no, Caplan was bearing doomsday tidings of neither a Windows operating system nor the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Caplan took to the airwaves to direct our short attention spans to the unprecedented explosion of “plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing” in the realm of science publishing, a topic he discussed in his op-ed, “The Problem of Publication-Pollution Denialism.”2
Science Friday host Ira Flato introduced the segment by pointing out that there are an estimated 25,000 journals covering the fields of science, technology, and medicine. Off the cuff that sounds fantastic, right? So many journals must be an indicator that there’s so much SCIENCE happening out there, all of which is being peer-reviewed by scientific experts in whatever field, right? Caplan asserts that no – many of these 25,000 publications are “vanity publications.” Publications that your mom could publish in if she merely paid for the privilege of doing so. Some of these vanity journals claim to be peer-reviewed but Caplan quips that peer-review could be indicative of “their uncle and cousin Minni who comes over to play bridge…it’s not necessarily expert peer review.”3 We’ll have you know our reviewers are players of cribbage, not bridge, Dr. Caplan.
Ok, so we’ll agree, a bunch of shady journals that any rando can publish in is less than ideal. But is the existence of some sketchy vanity publications that could just be publicly black-listed any reason to go all sky-is-falling? Perhaps in and of itself no, but Caplan also points out that 30-40%4 of “stuff coming in [to biomedical journals] is plagiarized,”5 requiring an enormous amount of effort and software to weed out. Well, that’s downright troublesome. And here you thought only undergrad profs had to run their students’ submissions through plagiarism-checking software!
Caplan then hits on fraud, misconduct and gibberish as further contributions to the publication pollution problem. He cites two deliberately phony articles6 submitted to and accepted by some journals (including some peer-reviewed), as well as published studies, without retractions, that have been “condemned by the Food and Drug Administration, other regulators, and legitimate authors and review groups.”7
Speaking of fraudsies – let’s not neglect to mention the poster-child of publication pollution problems punching us in the collective crotch with ever-evolving iterations of vaccines-are-going-murder-and/or-autism-us-all: Andrew Wakefield and his totally fraudulent and laden-with-conflicts-of-interest study published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal. You can thank Mr. Wakefield8 for all of your Facebook acquaintances inviting you to try whatever latest snake oil is standing in for vaccinations, so-and-so leaving the anti-vaxx path when her own seven (?!) kids succumb to goddamn whooping cough, and for the need to now avoid Disneyland like the actual plague rather than because it is a nightmare hellscape. Hurray!9
So what’s the root of this whole troublesome, nay catastrophic, problem in the land of science publishing? Who or what is sending the babies down the river in the first place?10 In addition to new-kid-on-the-block labs and institutions in up-and-coming countries looking to make names for themselves,11 Caplan lays much of the blame on the atmosphere of “publish or perish” across the breadth of science, medicine and technology institutions. This is not merely some tacit understanding or rule-of-thumb. The pressure to publish contributes to everything from medical school rankings, tenure, and the doling out of grants. Not to mention the potential for profit, prizes, patents and products stemming from research.12
So how do we stop the polluted publishing babies13 from being sent down the river in the first place, or do we need to bother? After all, Bell Labs’ staff response to one of the biggest frauds perpetuated in physics was to argue that “[t]he beauty of science is that it is self-correcting. The mills of science grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.” Those same staffers also acknowledge that such fraud can’t easily be caught on the front end “if someone is determined to be unethical.”14 In the case of Wakefield’s fraud – it was a full six years before the Lancet issued a partial retraction in 2004. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Lancet issued a full retraction upon Britain’s General Medical Council finding Wakefield to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly,” and nixing his medical license.
Caplan isn’t all gloom and doom; his practical suggestions for meaningfully combating the publication pollution problem include admonishing journals to take the time and energy to run plagiarism software on submissions, and for universities, academics and science companies to cast a more critical eye on the research being published. He also suggests actually training reviewers in the peer review process, as it sounds like many reviewers just wing it without ever having received any direction on doing meaningful peer review.
Another suggestion Caplan makes is opening up the whole peer review process to being much more transparent on the end of both the reviewer and the reviewee – sounding to us not entirely unlike the open source software model. And if Windows OS is to proprietary, buggy, vulnerable, bloatware as open source is to transparent, quickly-fixed, more bullet-proof streamlined code, well Caplan just may be onto something there.
Wait, “who is this Arthur Caplan character,” you ask? Oh, no bigs – he’s only Head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, author of 600 publications (we’re just stone cold taking Wikipedia’s word for that on account of needing an abacus to count that high) spanning the fields of medicine, biomedical ethics, health policy, and philosophy, to name a few. He’s also the author or editor of thirty-two books, including such breezy summer reads as “When Medicine Went Mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust” and “The Case of Terri Schiavo: Ethics at the End of Life”, both of which you should put aside your vampire romances for just a few days to read ↩
including one titled “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?: The Surgical and Neoplastic Role of Cacao Extract in Breakfast Cereals” authored by none other than Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles ↩
exclaimed in Cyril Figgis style ↩
We just yesterday heard someone relate the Parable of the Babies in the River, which is apparently used to illustrate the notion of working so hard to cope with a particular crisis that often no one thinks or has the resources to look upstream, dummy, to sort out and fix whatever is causing all of the babies to be sent down the river in the first place. Have we lost you yet? Go ahead and look it up, we’ll wait. ↩
if one assumes non-nefarious intentions ↩
For an excellent read on the topic of publishing fraud in the realm of physics, we highly recommend Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World (MacSci) ↩
You see what we did there? ↩
Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World (MacSci) , See loc 153 of 5363 Kindle Edition ↩