The scientific community is facing a 'pollution problem' in academic publishing, one that poses a serious threat to the "trustworthiness, utility, and value of science and medicine," according to Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Medical Center.

That is a maturity issue. While open access - freeing publicly-funded research from copyright corporations and allowing the public to read the results they paid for with taxes - was hailed as a good thing, early on there were concerns that once it became popular, separating the good from the bad would be difficult. When open access publishers became corporate juggernauts in their own right, generating tens of millions in dollars in revenue by publishing hundreds of articles each day with little more than editorial review, it was easy to see that some journals would become predatory and just publish anything for money. Fraud and plagiarism were always concerns in traditional publishing as well. Along with PLOS and BioMed Central, Nature Publishing Group, Wiley, Sage and more have been caught publishing obviously plagiarized articles.

It will get fixed, but not without some hurt feelings

Writing in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Caplan says, "The pollution of science and medicine by plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing is corroding the reliability of research,. Yet neither the leadership nor those who rely on the truth of science and medicine are sounding the alarm loudly or moving to fix the problem with appropriate energy."

The big issues:

  • The proliferation of journals that recruit authors who pay to get their articles published. Despite having substandard or no peer view, these "predatory publishers" now comprise an estimated 25 percent of all open-access journals. "Not only do they provide opportunities for the unscrupulous in academia and industry to pad their curriculum vitaes and bibliographies with bogus articles and editorial appointments, they also make it difficult for those involved in the assessment and promotion of scholars to discern value from junk," writes Dr. Caplan.
  • Research misconduct, like falsifying or fabricating data or concealing serious violations. 14 percent of scientists report that their colleagues falsify data, and 72 percent report other questionable practices, according to one 2009 study published in PLoS One.
  • Plagiarism, which, according to a 2010 Nature article was "staggering," requiring editors to spend "inordinate amounts of time" checking submissions they receive.

There is little that can be externally done about many of these. Anesthesiology was the big criminal in fraud, followed by psychology, but they have started throwing people out. It is growing pains for publishing, but in the meantime it can be little surprise that the public does not trust science when it comes to vaccines, GMOs or global warming. If it's easy to dupe peer-reviewed journals, and difficult to know which journals are peer-reviewed or just have editorial checkboxes or no review at all, the public will be wary.

According to Dr. Caplan: "All these polluting factors detract from the ability of scientists and physicians to trust what they read, devalue legitimate science, undermine the ability to reproduce legitimate findings, impose huge costs on the publication process, and take a toll in terms of disability and death when tests, treatments, and interventions are founded on faulty claims."

Caplan proposes a national meeting of leaders in science and medicine to lead a sustained challenge to proactively and aggressively go after this pollution problem. "The currency of science is fragile, and allowing counterfeiters, fraudsters, bunko artists, scammers, and cheats to continue to operate with abandon in the publishing realm is unacceptable."

Citation: Arthur L. Caplan, 'The Problem of Publication-Pollution Denialism', Mayo Clinic Proceedings April 03, 2015 DOI: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.02.017