Thursday, November 24, 2016

Why Fake Data When You Can Fake a Scientist?

Hoss Cartwright, a former editor of the International Journal of Agricultural Innovations and Research, had a good excuse for missing the 5th World Congress on Virology last year: He doesn’t exist. Burkhard Morgenstern, a professor of bioinformatics at the University of Gottingen, dreamt him up, and built a nice little scientific career for him. He wrote Cartwright a Curriculum Vitae, describing his doctorate in Studies of Dunnowhat, his rigorous postdoctoral work at Some Shitty Place in the Middle of Nowhere, and his experience as Senior Cattle Manager at the Ponderosa Institute for Bovine Research. Cartwright never published a single research paper, but he was appointed to the editorial boards of five journals. Apparently, no one involved in the application processes remembered the television show Bonanza, or the giant but amiable cowboy named “Hoss” who was played by actor Dan Blocker. Despite Cartwright’s questionable credentials, he was invited to speak at several meetings such as the 5th World Congress on Virology—typically a mark of recognition as an expert.

Morgenstern was tired of the constant barrage of solicitations from suspect science journals asking him to join their editorial boards—the academic equivalent of the flood of credit card applications that anyone with a mailbox receives. “At some point I was just so fed up with all those spam emails from these junk publishers that I just did this little experiment,” he says. “I contacted them under the fake name Peter Uhnemann and asked to be accepted on the editorial board.” Uhnemann was a name borrowed from a German satirical magazine and Morgenstern’s first alter ego.

Uhnemann immediately joined the masthead of the journal Molecular Biology, which belongs to the publishing house OMICS International—which in August was sued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices—and is produced “in association” with the Nigerian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Unfortunately, Morgenstern admits, he was a bit too subtle: “Hardly anybody knows the name ‘Peter Uhnemann,’ so I then tried it with a more popular name, and this happened to be Hoss Cartwright.”

He has also found work for Borat Sagdiyev, the character created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is better known by his first name and less well known as a senior investigator at the University of Kazakhstan, who is still on the editorial board of at least one journal, Immunology and Vaccines. That journal belongs to Academician’s Research Center, a publisher based in India that’s suspected of “predatory” behavior against scientists desperate to see their work in a journal no matter how obscure or unread. (We emailed ARC about its quality control efforts, or lack thereof, but haven’t heard back from them.)

Cartwright, Uhnemann, Borat, and others are, in some sense, sting operations built to expose the growing practice of gaming the metrics by which scientific publications are judged. The number of publications a scholar has, how many times they have been cited, who the co-authors are—metrics like these should all be secondary to the quality of the work itself, but often they are actually more important.

“Scientists no longer publish to share results with their colleagues, but rather to improve their ‘metrics,’ ” laments Morgenstern. These metrics can have real impact on scientists’ careers.

Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has sat on committees tasked with hiring and promoting faculty, and he sees signs of vulnerability in the process. “Committees are somewhat to very self serving and tend to lower the bar based on personal relationships with colleagues,” Calabrese says. “For the most part I doubt that they are very alert to being manipulated and can therefore be easy targets. … In most departments I think it is likely that the faculty may not even evaluate the quality of the papers, giving up their judgment to journals, peer review processes, and the letters of external reviewers,” he adds. “It is easier to use these means for decision making.”

And that’s in the United States. The Medical Council of India recently updated its guidelines to require publication of four papers to become associate professor, and eight to become a full professor. The policy has triggered fears among some scientists that the quality of Indian research will fall as people try to pad their resumes with bogus or crummy papers.

The fact is that professional advancement for scientists around the world is becoming more and more challenging in an era of ever-scarcer funding for research and tightening competition for faculty spots. To succeed in the publish-or-perish environment of academia, most scientists hit the lab and play within the rules. Others, though, hatch schemes.

The nuclear option is faking data. But the complexity of the modern scientific publishing environment has opened a host of new, more sophisticated approaches: fluffing up resumes with scam appointments to editorial boards, adding nonexistent authors to studies (or real, high-powered co-authors who didn’t participate in the research), and even publishing junk journal articles for the sake of publication count.

But, one of today’s most direct new frauds is incredibly simple: Make up new people.

by Adam Marcus & Ivan Oransky, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: nkbimages & Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty