‘Publication laundering’: how publishers happily accept bogus and shoddy conference papers for profit

from smoldering-nonsense department

TechDart has written many times about the dysfunctional state of academic publishing. The main problem is that academics do most of the work to get a paper published, but publishers reap most of the benefits. Profit margins for top publishers are extremely high – typically 30-40%. And yet academics are routinely barred from sharing their own papers, because they are pressured to assign copyright to the publisher, which uses controls that block wider access to knowledge.

An eye-opening post by James Heathers on Medium reveals that the greed and rot runs deep in the world of academic publishing. This time, it is involved in the world of “proceedings” journals. This is intended to be a collection of papers presented at a conference. This is the convention that applies to the publication of proceedings, and it selects external editors to conduct peer review. But, as Heathers explains, there is now a new type of “publication laundering” based on Proceedings journals, which works as follows:

Hold a conference, fake or real or somewhere in between. Prepare a topic, a location (virtual would make it easier), a shell website, hire guest editors, etc.

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

Write a series of dusty papers.

Those who sell authorship of papers.

If there are any (and possibly a real/fake mix-up possible) add salt to the duff paper by submitting to the real conference.

‘Complete’ the conference, and neatly batch all submissions with the correct format, sending them to the Proceedings journal.

Wait for the release.

Collect money from the ‘author’ after publication.

This method has many advantages. Items are usually published as closed access, which limits readership and thus verification. These fake proceeding journals can claim they are “peer reviewed” because the conference is trusted to do so, and no one verifies. Another advantage is that proceedings can be published really quickly compared to the slower form involving actual peer-reviewed papers, and so it seems to provide a really good service.

In her long and fascinating post, Heathers examines in detail a proceedings journal — Materials Today from Elsevier, perhaps the largest and most successful academic publisher. Wikipedia defines physics as:

The interdisciplinary field of materials science covers the design and discovery of new materials, especially solids. The field is commonly called materials science and engineering, which emphasizes the engineering aspects of constructing useful items, and physics of materials, which emphasizes the use of physics to describe the properties of materials.

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

FISH has 550 entries From Materials Science Conference.

Covid has 355 entries. From Materials Science Conference.

Herbal soup. Whole body tremors. Pumpkin laser measurement. Detecting financial fraud. Terrorism and its impact on tourism. Noise pollution. Social media sentiment analysis.

Other papers examined by Heathers are not only topics, but incomprehensible nonsense, probably generated automatically in some way. This is a great piece of investigative journalism, well worth reading in its entirety. This exposes a huge and largely unknown problem with academic publishing, where the approach to ascertaining whether conference proceedings papers are genuine seems to be “ask no questions, and you won’t be lied to”.

Belatedly, Elsevier is taking action:

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

Retraction Watch’s post notes that other publishers are also finally starting to grapple with the issue:

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

It has taken so long to start tackling this serious problem. It also confirms that the academic publishing industry is not fit for purpose, and requires a radical re-boot.

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Filed under: Academic Publications, Conferences, Elsevier, Materials Science, Materials Today, Media, Proceedings, Withdrawal Clock, Scrutiny

Company: Elsevier