How Predatory Publishers feed academic fake news

Written by: Kalev Leetaru


Some in the academic community have suggested that academia could lend its expertise to help journalists fact check information. Yet, a look at the state of academic publishing suggests academia may not be much better than journalism in fighting against misinformation.

"Not a day goes by that an academic paper doesn’t pass through my inbox that contains at least one claim that the authors attribute to a source it did not come from. I constantly see my own academic papers cited as a source of wildly inaccurate numbers about social or mainstream media. I recently attended an academic conference where my Twitter Heartbeat paper was cited by one presentation as the source of a claim that 90% of all tweets include precise GPS coordinates. The actual conclusion of my paper was that around 2% of all tweets have precise geolocation information. When I asked the authors afterwards about this, they initially claimed I was mistaken and only after identifying myself as the author of the paper in question did they suggest that perhaps they had misread my paper or gotten the figure from a different paper and copy-pasted the wrong citation. Yet, this was not a one-off – I see this kind of error every single day.

"My graduate students talk of heading over to Google Scholar, typing in a few keywords and copy-pasting the citation information of the first paper that shows up. Many have admitted to me that they rarely read the abstract of a paper they are citing, let along read it from start to finish in detail. They frequently cite papers from journals that their own university does not subscribe to and that they themselves have no way of immediately accessing.

"Academic journals are themselves enabling this trend. The Editor-in-Chief of one of the world’s most prestigious and storied scientific journals recently casually informed me that his journal now astoundingly accepts citations to non-peer-reviewed personal web pages and blog posts as primary citations supporting key arguments in papers published in that journal. You read that correctly.  Even just a few years ago such a move would have been unheard of,

For-profit academic publishers

There has been a meteoric rise of “predatory” for-profit publishers with prestigious-sounding names (often similar to brand-name journals) that have near-100% acceptance rates. These journals frequently accept a majority of submissions in return for charging "open access" publication fees that provide a revenue stream for the publisher. Even the peer review process itself is increasingly under attack with fake reviewers and even “peer review rings.”

The problem with all of this is that it is leading to a flood of papers entering the scholarly literature which contain maliciously false findings. These papers, in turn, get cited by papers published in established journals (some with very high impact factors).

As the scholarly record becomes flooded with papers that have not undergone even the most basic of review or where the review process has been hijacked by fake reviewers or where papers are a mix of claims that include unvetted blog posts from the open web, this greatly increases the rate at which accidental and even maliciously false findings enter the scholarly discourse.

When one looks critically at the worlds of journalism and academia, it is clear that both present incredibly flawed and immensely vulnerable bulwarks that are unlikely to be up to the task of fighting fake news.

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