In the so-called “post-truth era,” science seems like one of the last bastions of objective knowledge, but what if science itself were to succumb to fake news? Over the past year, German journalist Svea Eckert and a small team of journalists went undercover to investigate a massive underground network of fake science journals and conferences.
In the course of the investigation, which was chronicled in the documentary “Inside the Fake Science Factory,” the team analyzed over 175,000 articles published in predatory journals and found hundreds of papers from academics at leading institutions, as well as substantial amounts of research pushed by pharmaceutical corporations, tobacco companies, and others. Last year, one fake science institution run by a Turkish family was estimated to have earned over $4 million in revenue through conferences and journals.
The story begins with Chris Sumner, a co-founder of the nonprofit Online Privacy Foundation, who unwittingly attended a conference organized by the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology (WASET) last October. At first glance, WASET seems to be a legitimate organization. Its website lists thousands of conferences around the world in pretty much every conceivable academic discipline, with dates scheduled all the way out to 2031. It has also published over ten thousand papers in an “open science, peer reviewed, interdisciplinary, monthly and fully referred [sic] international research journal” that covers everything from aerospace engineering to nutrition. To any scientist familiar with the peer review process, however, WASET’s site has a number of red flags, such as spelling errors and the sheer scope of the disciplines it publishes.
Sumner attended the WASET conference to get feedback on his research, but after attending it became obvious that the conference was a scam. After digging into WASET's background, Sumner partnered with Eckert and her colleague Till Krause, who adopted fictitious academic personas and began submitting papers to WASET’s journal. The first paper to get accepted was titled “Highly-Available, Collaborative, Trainable Communication-a policy neutral approach,” which claims to be about a type of cryptoanalysis based on “unified scalable theory.” The paper was accepted by the WASET journal with minimal notes and praise for the authors’ contribution to this field of research.
There was just one problem: The paper was pure nonsense that had been written by a joke software program designed by some MIT students to algorithmically generate computer science papers. It was, in a word, total bullshit.
As detailed in a talk this year at Def Con, last year Eckert and Krause attended a conference organized by WASET in London to present their bullshit paper. The two journalists went in disguise as the fictitious academics Dr. Cindy Poppins and Dr. Edgar Munchhausen. When they arrived, they discovered the two-hour “conference” was actually just a half-dozen people in a room with a projector, all of whom had paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege. When Eckert and Krause approached Bora Ardil, the conference organizer, to learn more about WASET, they said he was cagey and declined to give straight answers about his affiliation with the conference. According to Eckert, he claimed he was just a doctoral student working with WASET.
After this initial foray into the world of predatory publishing, Eckert and Munchhausen partnered with Sumner to dig deeper into WASET. By analyzing 83 domain names affiliated with WASET and its conferences, Eckert and her colleagues discovered that the predatory journal network was a family con run by Cemal Ardil, his daughter Ebru and son Bora. Based on the WASET website, the Ardils have been running this con since 2007.
According to Eckert and her colleagues, WASET is just a single predatory publishing platform,but it hosts over 5,000 events around the world annually and publishes hundreds of papers in its online “journals.” WASET charges hundreds of dollars to publish in its journals and attend its conferences, which netted the Ardils an estimated $4.1 million in 2017 alone.
Yet WASET doesn’t hold a candle to OMICS Publishing Group, which is likely the largest predatory publisher in the world. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission filed a suit against OMICS for “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.” Last November, the FTC granted a preliminary injunction against OMICS that prohibits the company from “falsely representing that their journals engage in peer review, that their journals are included in any academic journal indexing service, or any measurement of the extent to which their journals are cited.”
By scraping the OMICS and WASET websites, Eckert and her colleagues discovered tens of thousand of abstracts for fake scientific papers. India accounted for nearly 15,000 of these abstracts alone, but researchers from the United States accounted for the second highest submission rate—approximately 10,000 American papers were submitted to OMICS journals and another 3,000 to WASET journals.
So who are the people submitting to these conferences? According to Eckert, these range from academics trying to boost their publishing profile to scientists affiliated with companies who want to boost their scientific cred by having some publications under their belt. A distressing number of these academics come from elite American universities, as well. Eckert and her colleagues discovered 162 papers submitted to WASET and OMICS journals from Stanford, 153 papers from Yale, 96 from Columbia, and 94 from Harvard in the last decade. Yet according to Krause, “this goes way beyond academia.”
“It's one thing for professors to try to polish their publication list and get more money or reputation, but it can be used for many other purposes,” Krause said last weekend during a talk at Def Con. “We as a society have this feeling that if something is scientifically proven and published, it has value. Usually science does just that, but in the case of the predatory journals it is quite different.”
The danger of these journals is that they can be used by companies to provide scientific justification for unproven treatments. One notable example of this is the case of the company First Immune, which had published dozens of “scientific” papers in these predatory journals lauding the effectiveness of an unproven cancer treatment called GcMAF. GcMAF is a protein that was marketed First Immune starting in 2010, but came under investigation shortly thereafter for running an unlicensed medical facility. The CEO of First Immune, David Noakes, will stand trial in the UK later this year for conspiracy to manufacture a medical product without a license.
The problem is that these journals gave First Immune an air of legitimacy for desperate patients with cancer. This predicament is illustrated in the autobiography of a famous German media personality Miriam Pielhau, who died of breast cancer in 2016. In Dr. Hope, Pielhau describes her battle with cancer and how she settled on GcMAF as a last resort. According to Eckert, who spoke with one of Pielhau's closest friends before her death, Pielhau used bad studies in semi-reputable journals as the basis for her opinions on GcMAF.
The ease with which people can be duped into taking false medical advice was driven home by Eckert and co, who submitted a research paper to the WASET Journal of Integrative Oncology that claimed that bees wax was a more effective cancer treatment than chemotherapy. The paper was accepted and published in the journal with minimal revisions.
As detailed by Eckert and her colleagues, similar tactics are used to publish studies and host conferences funded by major corporations as well, including the tobacco company Philip Morris, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and the nuclear safety company Framatone. When the predatory journals publish these companies’ research, they can claim it is “peer reviewed” and thereby grant it an air of legitimacy.
Taken together, the predatory publishers investigated by Eckert and her colleagues only represent about 5 percent of the total research published every year. While this doesn’t pose an existential threat to science as a truth-seeking process, it does work to erode public trust in legitimate research.
Eckert, Krause, and Sumner argue that that the rise of predatory journals makes it imperative that the general public, researchers, and academics stay on their guard to combat the proliferation of bogus research. Science, like democratic politics, has been responsible for some of the greatest advances in the wellbeing of humanity, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to being undermined by a small group of persistent bad faith actors.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Miriam Pielhau cited research from fake journals in her book 'Dr. Hope.' Pielhau did not cite any studies about GcMAF in her book. According to Eckert, who interviewed one of Pielhau's close friends prior to her death, Pielhau was reading misleading studies about GcMAF published in legitimate journals prior to her death.