Midi-chlorians are one of the most controversial aspects of Star Wars lore, second only to the question of whether "Han shot first." They live inside cells and give Jedis power to control the Force—an explanation many fans dismiss as technobabble. Midi-chlorians are also, you know, fictional. But that didn't prevent a number of open-access scientific journals from publishing a spoof paper about them.
The paper, titled "Mitochondria: Structure, Function, and Clinical Relevance," may at first glance look like a legitimate scientific paper. In fact, it was produced by Neuroskeptic, a pseudonymous neuroscientist who writes critically about his field for Discover magazine. He cobbled it together from re-written Wikipedia entries and larded it with Star Wars references: the authors are listed as Dr. Lucas McGeorge and Dr. Annette Kin. (Respectively, those are references to George Lucas, the creator of the franchise, and Anakin Skywalker, who went on to become a villain named Darth Vader.)
"My goal was to see whether journals would publish a manuscript that was actually based on fiction (ie Star Wars), something that I don't think has been done before. I used my spam folder to help find targets—if a publisher spammed me, I targeted them," Neuroskeptic told Tonic. "Spamming for submissions or editorial members is almost always a bad sign. Real journals don't need to spam, they are over-subscribed if anything. Other stings have used nonsense text or have submitted a parody of a real paper but I wanted to try a different angle."
The "sting," in this case, was designed to make a point about open-access publishing and the unfortunate phenomenon of predatory journals. Open-access journals, as the name suggests, aim to provide academic work to a wider audience by reversing the typical publishing model. For traditional journals, authors pay no fee to have their work published, but subscribers often pay high rates to obtain the journals. Open-access journals instead ask authors to pay to have their work peer-reviewed and published.
Respected journals such as PLoS ONE use this model, but it's also led to journals that solicit manuscripts, take researchers' money, and publish papers with no apparent peer review. Neuroskeptic submitted his midi-chlorian paper to nine such journals, and four accepted it. One asked for a $360 fee, but three others went ahead and published it for no charge. (Two of them have since removed the paper, but with no apparent retraction.)
That's despite the paper containing near-gibberish such as, "Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside in all living cells—without the midi-chlorians, life couldn't exist, and we'd have no knowledge of the force. Midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism." Three journals did reject the paper; more bizarrely, two asked him to revise and resubmit, which usually indicates a paper is fundamentally sound but needs more work. Two peer reviewers caught onto the spoof and still asked him to revise and resubmit.
This all might seem like a moderately funny joke, part of a long history of using intentionally poor work to make a point about academic publishing. But the point stands: As Neuroskeptic explains, "scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review." Open-access journals are not supposed to be the academic equivalent of vanity publishing, where money buys publication and a little bit of prestige. If the promised peer review is not catching obvious spoofs co-authored by Darth Vader, what are authors really paying for?
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