On junk scientific journals

I’m annoyed by the junk email they send me so regularly, so I certainly would be happy for them to go.  Science would probably be better off with fewer papers in fewer journals.  Imagine if promotion and grant decisions ignored quantity–let years go by without publishing if you have nothing really interesting to report–in favor of having an occasional well-cited article in one of the most prestigious journals.  I don’t know if it would work, but it’s worth considering.

At The Walrus, Alex Gillis writes about the peril of disreputable academic journals that will publish anything.  He’s honest enough to admit the prominence of Indian conmen.  And that the established journals have been fleecing academia with enormous bills for work other academics (authors and referees) provided the journal for free.  However, even before reading the article, I thought to myself “this is going to turn out to be about policing the climate change and vaccine consensus”.  Sure enough.  What is it with scientists these days?

Putting that aside, it is unfair if some academics are getting raises and grants by padding their CVs with the help of articles in fake journals and presentations to fake conferences.  I can’t imagine that working in physics.

There is a running concern, “What if this spoils the credibility of science?  What if people decide they can’t trust peer-reviewed articles?”  Would that be bad?  Where did anyone get the idea that articles should be trusted just because they’re peer-reviewed, that they therefore “speak for science”?  Reviewers don’t replicate experiments or even calculations.  As I tell my introductory astronomy students, science has no authority per se.  There is no unitary being called “science” that can bring the plenitude of its authority onto any given question.  Each scientific claim stands alone on its own evidence.  That’s how science is supposed to work.  If scientists have credibility, we’d probably be better off without it.

One Response

  1. I still remember that far-off and deluded day when I imagined that peer reviewers actually checked things–ran off the the library to confirm the accuracy of a citation or even replicated an experiment. Then I became a peer reviewer and realized that I barely had time to read those wretched manuscripts, and suggested rejection only for those that struck me as “obviously” wrong or unintelligible. I cannot believe that it is any different with the big names who receive many papers to review. I fully understood that peer review is a smell test when I began to wander off the reservation and my rejection letters boiled down to “there’s something not quite right about this paper.” They sniffed it, wrinkled their nose (and perhaps quietly retched), and that was peer review.

    I think we should see conferences and journals on a continuum, with the utterly bogus at one end and the Platonic ideal of scholarship at the other. The distribution skews towards the bogus but mostly clusters in the mixed middle. I regularly receive “invitations” to scientific conferences that are obviously meant as pure vacations (held, for instance, at the Fallen Angels Beach Resort and Spa on the island of Bali), but I have also never been to a conference in which some sizable portion of the participants were not more or less on vacation. They read a paper to justify cancellation of their classes, and then headed out on the town.

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