A fig leaf for dubious research

The shady practices of predatory publishers have been making headlines in recent weeks. Professor Martin Lohse, Scientific Director at the MDC, explains in the following interview why these practices pose a risk to the overall credibility of science.

What is the problem with publishing research in predatory journals or attending predatory conferences?

The problem here is twofold. On the one hand, the pretense exists that these journals are properly reviewed and that speakers at these conferences have been selected accordingly. This would be considered normal scientific practice. But these “normal” levels of quality control do not in fact take place. On the other hand, your own work ends up in the company of highly questionable research. This can lead to outrageous statements being mistaken for solid scientific knowledge, and to unscientific publications being given equal status as scientific publications. You basically become a fig leaf that enables dubious research to infiltrate the public.

Prof. Martin Lohse

So the public’s trust in science could suffer as a result?

There is the risk that non-experts in particular will no longer be able to distinguish good science from questionable science or even nonsense. So it will be harder for the general public to draw the line. This is the main reason why we must defend ourselves against the ploys of predatory publishers.

Has the MDC been affected?

When we first checked the data gained from the journalists’ research, we were relieved not to find the MDC in the Excel tables. But it has since come to light that some of our researchers have indeed been implicated – by submitting individual publications and by attending conferences.

Are young scientists particularly susceptible to these schemes?

No, not necessarily. The problem affects the entire spectrum – from distinguished researchers to inexperienced ones. You have to be extremely cautious as predatory journals clearly employ very clever tactics.

What is the MDC doing in response?

We have been drawing people’s attention to this problem for a long time – not just since the investigative reporting of the NDR, WDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung emerged. This has been a known problem within the scientific community for years. In 2016, for example, a joint statement was issued on the subject by the national science academies of Germany, France and England. Our librarians are also experts in publishing and have lists of reputable journals that are okay to publish in.

These predatory journals are making bad use of a good idea: open access.

Yes, and we want to continue to promote this idea. After all, the subscription fees charged by major publishers such as Elsevier could also be considered “predatory” to a certain extent. Publishing companies like this used to carry a lot of weight, but their prices have now risen to shameless levels. As of 2018, therefore, our library now pays the publication fees for all articles published by MDC authors in open-access journals via the publication fund. Predatory journals are expressly excluded!

The role of libraries is changing. Up to now, they have decided which journals to subscribe to and therefore made these journals interesting to publish in. But now we need some kind of quality control method for open-access journals. We should advise our staff to publish only in journals that we deem reputable. We should also make it clear that we cannot use research published in disreputable journals in evaluations and such like.

What about predatory conferences?

This is slightly more difficult to manage, because an entire spectrum exists between events that are total nonsense and those of excellent quality. The best way for us to help young people avoid the wrong conferences is by providing a good mentoring service. In almost all sectors, there are leading conferences that people can attend where they can listen to lectures given by authoritative experts. I think it is very important that working group leaders point out that these are the events where you learn the most. This is also the environment where you receive the greatest response to whatever you’re presenting.

However, dubious organizers will try to lure particularly prominent scientists to their event in order to improve its overall reputation. This can be an easy trap to fall into.

What should you do if you suddenly realize at the beginning of a conference that something is wrong?

If it is really obvious, you should withdraw your participation and tell the organizer that you do not wish to be associated with these sorts of events. If there is any doubt, the MDC as a whole would have to get involved. There is certainly a spectrum of quality even at reputable conferences. You shouldn’t leave right away if you find the first few lectures boring!

Further information

Statement on scientific publications (PDF)
Guidelines and policies of the MDC Library
Open Science at the MDC
ORION project
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