OLLIE is in many ways a typical dog. She likes going for walks and chasing birds, and is especially fond of having her tummy rubbed. But in one respect, the Staffordshire Terrier differs radically from her canine peers: she has a burgeoning academic career, and sits on the editorial boards of seven medical journals.
As you may have guessed, the journals on whose boards Ollie sits are of the predatory variety. These are shadowy, online publications that mimic legitimate journals, but are prepared to publish anything in exchange for a fee that can run into thousands of dollars. Predatory journals prey on desperate young researchers under huge pressure to get their research published to further their careers.
Ollie’s owner is Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University in Perth. Ollie likes to watch Mike working on his computer, and Mike gets a lot of emails from predatory journals. Wondering just how low these journals would go, he put together a curriculum vitae for his dog – detailing research interests such as “the benefits of abdominal massage for medium-sized canines” – and sent it off to a number of these journals, asking for a spot on their editorial boards.
Remarkably, the vast majority accepted Ollie without demur, and her name now adorns several journal websites. Ollie is a trailblazer, Professor Daube says, being the first dog ever to get on the editorial board of a journal.
“What makes it even more bizarre is that one of these journals has actually asked Ollie to review an article. It’s entitled Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumours and their management. Some poor soul has actually written an article on this theme in good faith, and the journal has sent it to a dog to review.”
Professor Daube says that although he started Ollie’s academic career as a bit of a joke, there’s a serious message in there as well.
“These so-called journals are just preying on the gullible – especially young or naïve researchers and those from low income countries. I do think it is important to expose shams of this kind.”
The problem of predatory journals has exploded over the past few years. One estimate has put the number of these journals at around 10 000 – mostly based in low income countries such as China or India – and the number of manuscripts they have published at over half a million.
But they are part of a broader problem of research integrity that has hit legitimate and illegitimate journals alike. Just last month, over 100 articles were pulled from one journal (Tumor Biology) because their peer review had been faked. Even prestigious journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine have not been spared, with reports that data from a major trial published in that journal had been fraudulently compromised.
Research integrity is the subject of a recent Lancet editorial as well as a major conference to be held next week in Amsterdam – the fifth World Conference on Research Integrity. Speaking at that meeting will be Dr Virginia Barbour of the Queensland University of Technology, who is executive director of the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group and is also finishing up her term as chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics.
“Maintaining research integrity is a complex, intertwining problem, and often when you try and solve one bit of it, you make another bit worse. A perfect example is when journals try to relieve the huge burden of peer review placed on them by asking authors to suggest reviewers. But then that opens the way for authors to subvert the review process,” Dr Barbour told MJA InSight.
“The breakdown in research integrity is driven by incentives, by people who desperately need to get published, and often don’t speak the language of the journals they’re trying to get into.”
She said that part of the solution was to get academics to better understand the issues involved in research integrity, particularly with regard to predatory journals.
“Until quite recently, academics had a small number of journals to choose from, and now there are many more, but the academics don’t necessarily have the skills and training to navigate between them. There are resources out there to help them publish more strategically. But it’s a bit like when we all got emails from Nigerian banks asking for money. Eventually everyone learned it was a scam. We have to do the same here and apply a degree of common sense to our publishing strategy.”
But Dr Barbour remains optimistic that research integrity can be maintained in the internet age.
“The internet has disrupted publishing, and people will take advantage. And yet, a lot of the innovation is good and is encouraging transparency – things like making data and protocols openly available, open peer review, pre-print publication and post-publication commenting. All this has led to a more open publishing environment, and I think this is the way to go with research integrity. We need more openness and transparency.”
Which means that, with any luck, you won’t find your next research project being reviewed by a Staffordshire Terrier. Professor Ollie declined to comment.
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