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News Feature: Factory-Farming of Articles

June 13, 2023, #42

On 4 June 2023, Manuel Ansede wrote an article about “A researcher who publishes a study every two days reveals the darker side of science”¹ in the Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS, which has a section on Science and Technology. The prolific author in question is José Manuel Lorenzo who had “his name on 176 papers last year”¹. It was possible only via questionable collaborations. Lorenzo “and some researchers from India and Saudi Arabia published an article on the treatment of gum disease with bee venom. In a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, Lorenzo admits that he doesn’t know any of these co-authors in person, nor is he an expert on any of these issues.”¹

Such things happen, Ansede notes, when “Researchers are under brutal pressure to publish studies. Their salary increases, promotions, project funding and social prestige depend on evaluations in which their performance is measured practically by weight.”¹ Some paper mills in India offer co-authorship “in exchange for money.”¹ When EL PAÍS “requested price rates from one of the Indian companies that sends their offers to Spanish scientists”¹ the company “offered the possibility of being the first author of a study that was already written … in exchange for about $500.“¹ The paper mill promised “to publish these ready-made studies in the journals of the world’s leading scientific publishers: Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, Science and Wiley.”¹ Whether that would happen is less clear.

Ansede blames the problem on the change from a reader-pays subscription model to an author-pays model combined with the rise of profitable mega-journals. Factory-farmed articles fed to mega-journals are unlikely to cease in the near future because they make money. Such articles are as much of a curse for serious scientific publishers as for universities, since a serious review process whose goal is to weed out fake research represents a non-trivial expense.

Responsibility for the flood of unreliable articles may ultimately lie with universities and governmental organisations that distribute rewards based primarily on quantity rather than quality. Quality takes more effort than checking publication statistics, but serious assessment may be more cost-effective in the long run than the damage that fake scholarship does daily.

 

1: Manuel Ansede, ‘A Researcher Who Publishes a Study Every Two Days Reveals the Darker Side of Science’, EL PAÍS English, 4 June 2023, https://english.elpais.com/science-tech/2023-06-04/a-researcher-who-publishes-a-study-every-two-days-reveals-the-darker-side-of-science.html.

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