Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Predatory journals hit by ‘Star Wars’ sting

A number of so-called scientific journals have accepted a Star Wars-themed spoof paper. The manuscript is an absurd mess of factual errors, plagiarism and movie quotes. I know because I wrote it.

Inspired by previous publishing “stings”, I wanted to test whether ‘predatory‘ journals would publish an obviously absurd paper. So I created a spoof manuscript about “midi-chlorians” – the fictional entities which live inside cells and give Jedi their powers in Star Wars. I filled it with other references to the galaxy far, far away, and submitted it to nine journals under the names of Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin.

Four journals fell for the sting. The American Journal of Medical and Biological Research (SciEP) accepted the paper, but asked for a $360 fee, which I didn’t pay. Amazingly, three other journals not only accepted but actually published the spoof. Here’s the paper from the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access (MedCrave), Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Austin) and American Research Journal of Biosciences (ARJ) I hadn’t expected this, as all those journals charge publication fees, but I never paid them a penny.

Edit 28th July: All of the above journals have now deleted the paper, so I’ve made it available on Scribd.

So what did they publish? A travesty, which they should have rejected within about 5 minutes – or 2 minutes if the reviewer was familiar with Star Wars. Some highlights:

“Beyond supplying cellular energy, midichloria perform functions such as Force sensitivity…”
“Involved in ATP production is the citric acid cycle, also referred to as the Kyloren cycle after its discoverer”

“Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside in all living cells – without the midi-chlorians, life couldn’t exist, and we’d have no knowledge of the force. Midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism.”

“midichloria DNA (mtDNRey)” and “ReyTP”

And so on. I even put the legendary Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise monologue in the paper:

Ironically, I’m not even a big Star Wars fan. I just like the memes.

To generate the main text of the paper, I copied the Wikipedia page on ‘mitochondrion’ (which, unlike midichlorians, exist) and then did a simple find/replace to turn mitochondr* into midichlor*. I then Rogeted the text, i.e. I reworded it (badly), because the main focus of the sting was on whether journals would publish a ridiculous paper, not whether they used a plagiarism detector (although Rogeting is still plagiarism in my book.)

For transparency, I admitted what I’d done in the paper itself. The Methods section features the line “The majority of the text of this paper was Rogeted [7]”. Reference 7 cited an article on Rogeting followed by “The majority of the text in the current paper was Rogeted from Wikipedia: Apologies to the original authors of that page.”

Credit where credit’s due, a number of journals rejected the paper: Journal of Translational Science (OAText); Advances in Medicine (Hindawi); Biochemistry & Physiology: Open Access (OMICS).

Two journals requested me to revise and resubmit the manuscript. At JSM Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (JSciMedCentral) both of the two peer reviewers spotted and seemingly enjoyed the Star Wars spoof, with one commenting that “The authors have neglected to add the following references: Lucas et al., 1977, Palpatine et al., 1980, and Calrissian et al., 1983”. Despite this, the journal asked me to revise and resubmit.

At the Journal of Molecular Biology and Techniques (Elyns Group), the two peer reviewers didn’t seem to get the joke, but recommended some changes such as reverting “midichlorians” back to “mitochondria.”

Finally, I should note that as a bonus, “Dr Lucas McGeorge” was sent an unsolicited invitation to serve on the editorial board of this journal.

So does this sting prove that scientific publishing is hopelessly broken? No, not really. It’s just a reminder that at some “peer reviewed” journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all. Which we already knew, not least from previous stings, but it bears repeating.

This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review. True, they also publish papers (electronically in the case of these journals), but if you just wanted to publish something electronically, you could do that yourself for free. Preprint archives, blogs, your own website – it’s easy to get something on the internet. Peer review is what supposedly justifies the price of publishing.

All of the nine publishers I stung are known to send spam to academics, urging them to submit papers to their journals. I’ve personally been spammed by almost all of them. All I did, as Lucas McGeorge, was test the quality of the products being advertised.

Courtesy of a colleague



  1. That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

    This paper should never have been published. Titled, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” our paper “argues” that “The penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender-performative, highly fluid social construct.” As if to prove philosopher David Hume’s claim that there is a deep gap between what is and what ought to be, our should-never-have-been-published paper was published in the open-access (meaning that articles are freely accessible and not behind a paywall), peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences. (In case the PDF is removed, we’ve archived it.)

    Assuming the pen names “Jamie Lindsay” and “Peter Boyle,” and writing for the fictitious “Southeast Independent Social Research Group,” we wrote an absurd paper loosely composed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory. The paper was ridiculous by intention, essentially arguing that penises shouldn’t be thought of as male genital organs but as damaging social constructions. We made no attempt to find out what “post-structuralist discursive gender theory” actually means. We assumed that if we were merely clear in our moral implications that maleness is intrinsically bad and that the penis is somehow at the root of it, we could get the paper published in a respectable journal.

    This already damning characterization of our hoax understates our paper’s lack of fitness for academic publication by orders of magnitude. We didn’t try to make the paper coherent; instead, we stuffed it full of jargon (like “discursive” and “isomorphism”), nonsense (like arguing that hypermasculine men are both inside and outside of certain discourses at the same time), red-flag phrases (like “pre-post-patriarchal society”), lewd references to slang terms for the penis, insulting phrasing regarding men (including referring to some men who choose not to have children as being “unable to coerce a mate”), and allusions to rape (we stated that “manspreading,” a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide, is “akin to raping the empty space around him”). After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success…(continued)

  2. (continued)If you’re having trouble understanding what any of that means, there are two important points to consider. First, we don’t understand it either. Nobody does. This problem should have rendered it unpublishable in all peer-reviewed, academic journals. Second, these examples are remarkably lucid compared to much of the rest of the paper. [example deleted]

    No one knows what any of this means because it is complete nonsense. Anyone claiming to is pretending. Full stop.

    It gets worse. Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse…

    Some references cite the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.

    Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples). Nearly a third of our references in the original paper go to fake sources from a website mocking the fact that this kind of thing is brainlessly possible, particularly in “academic” fields corrupted by postmodernism. (More on that later.)

    Two of the fake journals cited are Deconstructions from Elsewhere and And/Or Press (taken directly from algorithmically generated fictitious citations on the Postmodern Generator). Another cites the fictitious researcher “S. Q. Scameron,” whose invented name appears in the body of the paper several times. In response, the reviewers noted that our references are “sound,” even after an allegedly careful cross-referencing check done in the final round of editorial approval. No matter the effort put into it, it appears one simply cannot jump Cogent Social Sciences’ shark…

    The reviewers were amazingly encouraging, giving us very high marks in nearly every category. For example, one reviewer graded our thesis statement “sound” and praised it thusly, “It capturs [sic] the issue of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process” (which we take to mean that it wanders aimlessly through many layers of jargon and nonsense). The other reviewer marked the thesis, along with the entire paper, “outstanding” in every applicable category.

  3. Mitochondrial article:

    Conceptual article: