Another scam paper published in a “scientific” journal

January 15, 2021 • 9:45 am

I’ve written before about predatory scientific journals: those fly-by-night venues that will publish nearly any submitted paper, however dreadful. Their motive is to get the thousands of dollars in “publication fees” that authors are forced to pay. In return, the authors get to cite their paper on their c.v.s, even though most papers in these journals are worthless. (Those who evaluate c.v.s, however, often don’t know which journals are bogus.)

In April of last year I wrote about a hilarious and deliberately insane paper written by Daniel Baldassare, “What’s the deal with birds?”, published in the predatory Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews (it’s not there any longer).  Its thesis, such as it was, was that birds tending to look like fish (i.e., penguins) occurred in areas most susceptible to climate change, while birds with weird beaks (i.e;, parrots), didn’t live in those areas. But it was a farrago of madness and humor, done on purpose to show that these journals will publish anything. Here are the “data” from Baldassare’s paper:

I guess after Baldassare exposed both the paper and the journal in his Twitter thread, they decided to remove the paper. Baldassare, by the way, managed to bargain the “author’s fee” down from $1700 to zero. Audubon Magazine even wrote a piece about the hoax.

Now we have another of these hoax papers, also dealing with “fishy” birds. This one, published by Martin Stervander and Danny Haelewaters, appears in in Oceanography & Fisheries. It’s still up (click on the screenshot), but won’t be for long (I have a pdf for you if it’s taken down).

The premise and thesis is also bull-goose loony, again on purpose. This time their complex hypothesis took into account no fewer than four biological factors. Here’s how the authors describe the genesis of the hypothesis:

At the time we developed the original idea about fishiness of birds potentially being correlated to absence of poisonous mushrooms, one of the authors (D.H.) was eating pizza with four cheeses, chicken, anchovies, and mushrooms. It was really a good one, and this prompted us to—just like the pizza—integrate all four parameters in this study: fishiness, birdiness, lack of fungal toxicity, and effects of prolonged heating. We note that integrative taxonomy approaches [8], and by extension approaches to integrate everything in research, are being increasingly employed, thus supporting the rationale for the work presented in this paper.

It is important to keep in mind that research has not always been this integrative, or cross-disciplinary. For example, Charles Darwin worked alone [9] and still published a relatively well-cited contribution to the field of theology and some other disciplines. We feel it is natural for humans to dangle up and down between extremes. This is true for scientists, just like it is for politicians (consider the formation of the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s versus the current wish of some countries to leave again [10]).

All in all, in this study we present the results of our work with fishy birds (fide Baldassarre [1]). We hypothesize that, (1) despite climate change, it is still cold in Antarctica and thus the presumed lack of poisonous fungi leads to fishy-looking birds. Further, with a clear correlation of pizza and lower latitudes [11], we hypothesize that (2) birdy-looking birds (as well as fishy-looking fish) will be more prevalent than fishy-looking birds on pizzas.

Any good reviewer would have spotted this in an instant as a Poe, but of course these journals don’t care about quality, or even seriousness. I doubt the reviewers even read the papers.

Their results, like Baldassari’s are presented in a single bizarre figure, with lots of bogus statements in the text about statistical methods and significance. But what they conclude is that birds that look like fish (i.e., penguins) tend to occur in areas without poisonous fungi (Antarctica), while birds that don’t look like fish (chickens, swifts, etc; they also threw in a flying fish that looks like a swift, an anchovy, and a “Nemo fish”) live at lower latitudes where there’s an abundance of pizza. A remarkable vindication of their thesis! The results in graphic form:

. . .  and in the text:

Our PCA revealed that most of the variation in the dataset was partitioned along the first (59.3%) and second (34.8%) principal components (PCs), with loadings corresponding to poisonous funginess and pizza toppingness, respectively (Table 1). There is a clear bimodality in both PC scores, distinguishing on the one hand penguins (PC1, low funginess) and on the other hand anchovy and chicken (PC2, high toppingness). Plotting the scores for all taxa, a quadratic model explains the two-dimensional distribution of avian species (p <<< 0.05) with low residual variation except for the outlier H. rustica (Figure 1).

They note that while fishy-looking birds occur in areas lacking poisonous fungi and pizza, that relationship doesn’t hold for birdy-looking fish (flying fish).  They also note that the swallow is an outlier.

In the discussion they take up the parlous subject of climate change, and postulate that, with global warming, poisonous fungi may invade Antarctica and “may thus exert a strong selection pressure on penguins to evolve a less fishy morphology,” so that the evolved penguins may, with their new appearance, expand into “pizza topping habitats.”

There are two more immediate clues that this was a hoax: the acknowledgements (which damn predatory journals!) and the author contributions, which cite Darwin:

First author Martin Stervander also wrote an exposé on his own website about the paper, including a positive “review” of the paper for another journal where it was submitted, Journal of Ecosystems and Ecography, published by OMICS International. It’s clear that the reviewing process of all these journals is deficient—to say the least. But if it was rigorous, they’d have no way to make money!

So we have another exposé of  predatory journals, which we all know exist because every scientist gets daily requests for submissions to these journals, even when the journals aren’t remotely connected with the scientist’s research. (I’ve had pleas for my papers from journals in obstetrics and gynecology.) But there’s no better way to expose this nonsense than to publish a loony paper in it.  Sadly, this doesn’t bring down the journals (they just remove the papers), and they continue to serve as citations for desperate scientists.

Is there anything unethical about these hoaxes? Hell, no: there’s no way anybody could be deceived by papers like these, and it’s the best way to show the journals up for what they are.

They also resemble the “hoax papers” sent by Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay to social-science journals in the famous “grievance studies affair” that now has its own Wikipedia page. As I wrote last April:

One final remark. In the “grievance studies affair“, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and especially Peter Boghossian got into big trouble for “hoaxing” humanities journals with equally ludicrous papers.  Baldassarre won’t get into trouble (and shouldn’t), for his paper is in a clearly predatory journal.  But what’s the difference between a predatory scientific journal that will publish nonsense and humanities journals like Fat Studies or Gender, Place & Culture that publish nonsense but also purport to be venues for serious research? In effect, they both do the same thing: help researchers fatten their c.v.s with worthless research. Why should Boghossian et al. be excoriated for exposing the same kind of crappy journal standards that Baldassarre did?

Anything that exposes this kind of academic garbage, including clear hoax papers, is to be applauded, so long as the hoaxes are revealed (as they were with the Grievance Studies Trio) or are so palpably ridiculous (as with Baldassarre’s paper) that they couldn’t be anything other than a hoax.


h/t: Martim Melo


32 thoughts on “Another scam paper published in a “scientific” journal

  1. What’s the deal with birds? is probably my favorite “hoax” paper ever. It’s just hilarious reading throughout.

    Regarding people using these predatory journals to have “published” studies on their c.v.s: I know someone who worked in an admissions department at a major state university with a high reputation. They said that most of the people there had little idea of what they were doing and the students they admitted were either just based on raw numbers and, otherwise, just capriciously. They also said that the hiring departments didn’t have a much better grasp on their jobs and, from what my friend told me, I can’t imagine any of them knew the difference between a predatory and rigorous journal.

    1. The department staff should be able to pick out the really good journal publications. That may mean they have to do a bit of looking-up for the more esoteric ones, but first pass assessment for a competitive research university shouldn’t be hard, because every viable candidate should probably have some instantly identifiable journals on their publication list.

      1. Ah, I guess I can’t say that this particular school is known for any specific research department. Perhaps “pretty good” reputation is more accurate. It’s not an Ivy League or “baby Ivy.”

  2. “In addition, it has been repeatedly stated that climate change may be a hoax on its own which may or may not be true–who knows, right [Trump 2012, IPCC Assessment 2014]?”

  3. I think the difference is that the hoax science papers show up the journals, but not the discipline. In fact, they reinforce the discipline by showing that the hoax journals have no standards that comport with the rigor associated with scientific papers. The papers of Pluckrose et al., on the other hand, show up the disciplines that use post-modernism, most notably the various Studies disciplines, as well as their journals. It is a case of the emperor having no clothes. Both are to be applauded.

  4. I forgot to add my favorite quotes from this paper.

    (1) “We note that integrative taxonomy approaches [8], and by extension approaches to integrate everything in research, are being increasingly employed, thus supporting the rationale for the work presented in this paper.

    “It is important to keep in mind that research has not always been this integrative, or cross-disciplinary.”

    (2) From the abstract: “The authors also recognize that topping received much focus in this study, but also acknowledge the importance of bottoming.”

    With regard to your final paragraph: Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian obviously received the backlash they did because they exposed journals that academics in those fields use to publish purportedly “serious” work. Without those journals, there wouldn’t be reams and reams of bullshit po-mo “studies” from which to make outrageous claims in newspaper articles, Wikipedia pages, textbooks, and classrooms. The po-mo and Critical Theory people are trying to protect their ivory tower, from which they attack everyone else with an unfortunately high and increasing rate of success. That state of affairs is, in my opinion, far more unfortunate than that of predatory journals. Those purportedly “serious” journals have allowed entire bullshit fields of study to flourish and to infect not only other fields, but popular culture and the minds of gullible and/or politically motivated people everywhere.

      1. Thank you for mentioning them! I only read Jerry’s post, so I didn’t actually click on the original article until I saw this reply. This really is the best work since What’s the deal with birds?

    1. Amen! We see the rise of educationally-sanctioned stupidity more clearly every day. It’s shaping public policy and having a real impact on everyday lives as these trash concepts (particularly critical race theory) are mainstreamed and their authors become lionized experts. It used to be that bogus academic credentials from imaginary institutions were the problem. Now it’s bogus fields of knowledge. The worst thing though is that, in reality, there is no downside to academically or substantively defrauding the world. If a looney theory proposed by a bogus researcher meets political needs, exposure of the fraud will be depicted as fascism.

  5. I wonder if the reviewing process for these papers is even real. That review quoted has lots of errors. Are they machine-generated, or generated by some “staff” of the journal just to make it look like it was reviewed?

    1. The review appears to have been written by someone with a shaky knowledge of English as a second language like the scammers employed by Indian scam call centres.

  6. I am noting the publishing trends and will be establishing the International Journal of Pisciform Dinosaurs forthwith.

    I’ll need some heraldry for “watermarking” the PDF pages (ink, paper? Antiquity!) … so maybe a unicorn and a narwhal in a mutually destructive spearing?
    Over a motto of “Great Invoices Getting Output”?

  7. In a way it is quite dispiriting. When I read a journal (unless it is a top shelf famous one) I’m never sure about the quality of what I’m reading. At least you know if you read something on facebook (I don’t) or twitter (ditto, unless it is some well known academic – Dawkins’ is pretty good/funny) you can ASSUME it is garbage, the medium is the message, but with scientific journals who knows what’s what?

    1. “with scientific journals who knows what’s what?”

      Well, the people working in a particular field of science can usually tell you which journals are reputable. In astronomy, for example, aside from Nature and Science, the list of first-rank journals publishing research across the entire discipline is quite short:

      The Astronomical Journal
      The Astrophysical Journal
      Astronomy & Astrophysics
      Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

      There are also a small number of top-rank specialist journals like Icarus (for planetary science) and General Relativity & Gravitation (for GR and cosmology).

      Then there are the second-rank journals, where you could go if your paper is rejected by the “top four”. They aren’t predatory journals in the sense of PCC(E)’s original article above, but don’t expect to establish an academic career if you publish many papers in them.

      1. In addition to GRG there is also Classical and Quantum Gravity, which also has stuff about gravitation, cosmology, and so on, which is astronomy in some sense. Also, the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (relatively new). I agree that the four which you mentioned are the big four. However, there are other serious journals, such as Astronomische Nachrichten (the oldest astronomy journal still being published), Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, The Observatory, and so on. Except for the first, those tend to cater more to things which are not straight research papers, but rather have a historical or philosophical angle, comments on other papers or the field in general (e.g. discussion of open-access publication), descriptions of meetings, transcripts of talks, book reviews, and so on. So no difference in quality, and the big names publish there as well, but rather an emphasis different from the straight research journals.

  8. Clearly, we need a Department of Fishy Bird Studies at every university. Once that is done, we can look forward to the Schools of Ed initiating work on the proper teaching of Fishy Bird Studies.
    Needless to say, these new units will periodically announce their opposition to systemic birdism.

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