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(Science Museum; SSPL via Getty Images)

Dozens of Scientific Journals Offered Her a Job. But She Didn't Exist

Mar 22, 2017

If you received a resumé and cover letter from an Anna O. Fraud, you might sense something fishy. If you got one from an Anna O. Szust, you'd probably be less concerned — even though oszust means "a fraud" in Polish. Either way, in a recent scientific sting operation reported in Nature, plenty of potential employers liked the fictitious Dr. Szust just fine — enough that 48 of them offered her a job. And that's a big problem.

The investigation was conducted by a team of researchers led by Piotr Sorokowski, of the University of Wroclaw in Poland, and described in Nature by co-researcher Katarzyna Pisanski, who is affiliated both with Wroclaw and with the University of Sussex in the U.K. The goal of the sting was to expose so-called predatory journals — science publications that charge fees to publish science, accepting all comers with all manner of papers provided there's money to be made. And the way the world of academia is set up, there are plenty of desperate scientists for the hucksters to woo.

The "publish or perish" dictum is a very real thing for researchers and academics whose hopes for career advancement depend on doing work that earns a spot in peer-reviewed journals. There are thousands of legitimate journals out there beyond the well-known powerhouses like Science or the BMJ or Nature itself, but the scientific community is vaster still and the competition for pages is keen. That has led to the rise of a staggering 10,000 predatory journals, which both charge fees to publish unvetted work and recruit scientists to fill editorial positions, lending a patina of credibility to their generally shabby operations and offering a prestigious sounding title to the scientists in return. By 2015, approximately half-a-million dubious papers had been published this way.

Pisanski and her colleagues selected 360 journals to approach in their study. Of these, 120 each came from two legitimate directories of science publications: The Journal Citation Reports (JCR) and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The final 120 came from a less formal directory known as "Beall's list," a compendium of suspect journals compiled by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado.

All 360 got a letter from "Dr. Szust" seeking a position on their editorial board. Her resume consisted of a string of phony degrees and invented book chapters pertinent to her wide-ranging academic interests. Those interests included "the theory of science and sport and methodological bases of social sciences." A web presence was also created for Szust on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter. Since the entire study was, in effect, an act of fraud — even if it was designed to expose far more pernicious fraud — the researchers were required to seek approval from a university ethics review board, which they received.

The responses the investigators got from the three groups of journals differed widely. None of the JCR publications offered a spot on the masthead to the imaginary Szust. Only 40% of them sent her any response at all. Of the journals listed on the DOAJ, eight did make a job offer, though the responses from the remaining 112 broke down more or less the same way they did on the JCR.

Some of the journals that rejected her also chided her for her approaching them at all: "One does not become an editor by sending in the CV; these positions are filled because a person has a high research profile," one wrote.

The Beall's list journals, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of the good Dr. Fraud. Forty of them offered her an editorial spot and some responses came within hours. Four of them offered her the top slot — editor in chief. One of them even specified that the job came "with no responsibilities." And the journals did not do much to conceal their pecuniary motivations either. Any money Szust generated by attracting scientists who would pay to publish would be split 60-40, with the journal taking the larger share and her keeping the remainder. Sometimes an upfront fee was requested from Szust — a mandatory $750 "subscription" to the journal, for example.

Spotting and avoiding predatory journals is not terribly difficult. A catalog like Beall's, for example, is effectively a blacklist, and both DOAC and JDR serve as whitelists, according to Pisanski and her colleagues. The bigger problem, they say, is finding a way to scale back the consuming role of publishing in determining academic advancement — or at least reducing the constant stress the process causes the academics themselves.

Some of history's best science has been done under extreme pressure — like the race to develop the polio vaccine or to determine the cause of AIDS. But most research is slow, thoughtful and iterative. Both the science and the scientists are at their best when they're allowed to take their time.

Correction: The original version of this story omitted the name of the study's lead author. He is Piotr Sorokowski.

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