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Fake papers: what do they reveal about the academe?

I think it’s fair to say that 2013 was a year that put the peer-review process to the test: In addition to the much-discussed ‘sting’ operation that was published in Science, in the past year we read about several cases in which hoax papers managed to find a home in academic journals. Some papers were lovingly filled with inside jokes such as references to Bernulli (2011), Alan Sokal, and even Borat, and others were just bizarre, as was the case with this paper that was retracted because it contained “no scientific content”. Whether these cases represent an actual decline in the standards of peer-review, or are a product of increased scrutiny, is a matter of some debate, but either way the large number of such ‘accidents’ seems indicative of serious pathogeny in the way in which knowledge is disseminated.

In a recent development, Navin Kabra, an Indian scholar, reports on how he managed to place yet another fake paper in one of the conferences that cater to his discipline. The paper scores several points for amusement value, as seen in extracts such as the following:

It is a self-evident truth that Sholay is the best movie ever made (at least according to the wife of the author of this paper). Now, if you’re paying attention, the first author of the paper appears to be Riaa Seth, which would indicate that she cannot have a wife, because the Supreme Court of India just upheld Section 377.

And we’ve managed to reference Hilbert, HHGTTG [The HitchHicker’s Guide To The Galaxy], Sholay, My Cousin Vinny, Jeff Naughton, the Wisconsin Database Performance Paper, Xeno’s paradox, Meeta Kabra [the author’s wife] and [a movie review website], and we even referenced the Sokal Affair in the heading of the paper […] proving once and for all that nobody has read this paper.

The publication of the paper, as such, is perhaps not quite so original news: as stated above, hoax papers seem to crop up quite regularly these days. What is much more interesting is the author’s commentary on how our academic culture encourages the publication of very low quality papers. I recommend reading the blog post in its entirety (once again, here’s the link), but here is the gist of his argument:

  • Increasingly, publishing papers is becoming a requirement for receiving a degree, not just at the doctoral level, but also for M-level and B.E. degrees.
  • Such policies have created large numbers of people whose academic progress is conditional on publication, but do not have access to either appropriate training or adequate funding in order to produce quality research.
  • Young scholars in this predicament are victimised by predatory organisations that provide a venue for publication in exchange for fees; and such organisations put pressure on university bureaucracies to encourage more publications, creating a vicious circle that serves to increase corporate profit.

Although this argument was explicitly framed with reference to engineering and technology education in India, I think that it has much broader resonance, and that it invites reflection on how graduation and promotion policies may be refined to counteract the activities of for-profit entities that develop alongside the Academe.

For instance, I think it would not be  unreasonable to expect that, if a tertiary institution or academic board views publications as a requisite for academic progression, they should be responsible for funding the dissemination of research. This might involve a round of peer-review undertaken by the university (in addition to the one which, hopefully, takes place for the publishers/conference organisers): Ideally, competition for limited funds might lead to the rejection of papers which make the least valuable contributions to knowledge. Moreover, such a policy would reduce the impact of possible conflicts of interest that arise when publication venues are also the recipients of funds.

Readers of this blog may have better ideas; do feel free to share them in the ‘comments’ space below.


Image credit: University of Nottingham | CC BY-NC

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