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


The Infinite Monkey Cage takes on flies

January 11, 2021 • 2:15 pm

After an audience member demanded that the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage took up the subject of Drosophila, the show devoted its half-hour slot not just to Drosophila, but to flies in general (dipterans). It features not only the hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox, but our own Mathew Cobb, Erica McAlister (a curator at London’s Natural History Museum), and “fly sceptic” David Baddiel, a British comedian.

As Matthew said, “It was a lot of fun. Erica is a hoot.”  It is a good show, and you’ll learn a lot about flies, and there’s a lot of laughing. Don’t miss the part about a botfly in the head (sadly, not the one I head).

Bill Maher on Trumpism as a cult

November 21, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Reader Bryan called my attention to this nine-minute clip from Bill Maher’s last “Real Time” show of the season.  After talking about Millerism, the failed end-times faith of the nineteenth century, Maher mentions another group that was disappointed and yet won’t accept their loss either: Trumpsters. He then dilates on cults, sycophants, and the self-promotion of Trump, demonstrating that Trumpism has many parallels with cults that worship a leader.

He winds up with a call to end our gloating and name-calling of our opponents, something that Andrew Sullivan emphasizes in this week’s Weekly Dish column.

“Who are these jellyfish?”: Bill Maher attributes Democratic losses to wokeness

November 15, 2020 • 1:00 pm

We all know that the promised “blue wave” of Democratic victories didn’t occur. While Trump has been given the boot (but got nearly half the vote), the Dems lost seats in Congress, failed to flip state legislatures, and doesn’t look as if it will control the Senate, either. Why, with a President who is so palpably unfit for office that his coattails should have swept many Republicans out of office as well.

In this bit from his latest Real Time, Bill Maher has what I think is a pretty good analysis: he attributes it largely to wokeness. While the GOP may be an unpalatable alternative, so are Wokies to many Americans. And that’s what I was afraid of. While, thank Ceiling Cat, Wokeness didn’t keep Biden from being elected (but might have done so for Bernie Sanders), it didn’t, says Maher, inspire many Americans to vote for Democrats. You may disagree, but we still need an explanation for why so many Americans cling to regressive parties, and why so many members of minority groups still voted Republican.


By the way, the New York Times article that Maher mentions has been retitled, and you can access if by clicking below:


h/t: Paul, Enrico

Lip-synched Presidential debate

October 29, 2020 • 2:15 pm

This video came from reader Ken, who added, “These were popular in 2016, but this is the first debate lip-sync I’ve seen this election cycle”. It’s pretty funny, and, at any rate, it’s funny enough to bring to a close a pretty mediocre day. (I’ve started cutting way back on feeding the ducks, which makes me sad, but it’s necessary to make them move on.)

Google Easter eggs

October 24, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Reader Mark Sturtevant called my attention to something that most of us probably don’t know about: Google “Easter Eggs”: results of searches that yield a bonus.

He found one this way:

I did not know that Google had ‘Easter eggs’.
But here is one:
In Google, type in: wizard of oz
Click on the red slippers,
then click on the tornado.
Yes, it’s a little cute “find” that you have to know about to see.  When you Google, you’ll see this; click on the red slippers and then after some kerfuffle you’ll get a tornado. Click on that and you’ll get a different kerfuffle.

Then I found out (by Googling, of course), that there’s a Big List of Google Easter Eggs. Some are retired, but there are enough to amuse you for a while. I don’t know how one finds these things; presumably people hit on them by accident. But how did they know to click on the red shoes? Does that triangular symbol to the left tell you?

SNL does the Trump/Biden debate

October 6, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Several readers sent me a link to SNL’s spoof of the recent Trump/Biden debate. Chris Wallace is played by Beck Bennett Trump by Alec Baldwin, and Biden by Jim Carrey (I didn’t recognize Carrey at first!) I’m not sure who plays Kamala Harris, as I almost never watch Saturday Night Live. When I have seen it, I can only compare it to the early glory days with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, and the other greats.

This bit is pretty good, but not outstanding, which exemplifies the whole show to me these days. The last two minutes, however, aren’t half bad.

Comedy wildlife photos

September 13, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Mashable has a selection of a readers’ favorite: the finalists of the annual Comedy Wildlife Photo contest.  Their article can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below, and the notes just below direct you to the contest website where you can vote for your favorite.

Founded by Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam and supported by wildlife conservation nonprofit The Born Free Foundation, the competition selects a collection of finalists from a host of images snapped across the globe, all of which capture nature at its most ridiculous.

Winners will be announced on Oct. 22, and you can even vote for your favourite on the website.

Here’s a small selection of my favorites, but there are many more in both places.  Thanks to the several readers who directed me to the sites.

The credits are at the bottom of the photos.

Talk to the claw!

Oops. . . 

Man builds nut bar for squirrels

August 31, 2020 • 2:30 pm

Reader Barry called my attention to this video and the article about the Nutty Bar from station KDKA in Pittsburgh. An excerpt (my emphasis):

People are going nuts for an Ohio woodworker’s latest creation: A bar that caters to neighborhood squirrels.

Michael Dutko, a 35-year-old hobbyist, has been creating art and household items from wood for most of his life, and even chronicles it on his YouTube channel Duke Harmon Woodworking. But it’s his fun twist on a squirrel feeder that’s made him Internet famous.

“The Nutty Bar,” which is attached to his backyard fence in Hilliard, looks just like a real bar, and even has a range of nuts on tap.

Dutko said he built it to help his neighbor with her bird-watching hobby.

“The whole reason I even started to make this is because my neighbor bird watches with her daughter and told me all of the squirrels keep getting in her way,” Dutko told CNN. “I didn’t even tell her what I was going to do, I just built it and put it back there and when she saw it, she just started cracking up.”

Lucky squirrels who find their way to the bar get to choose from seven different nuts named after beers: Cashew Dunkel, Peanut Pilsner, Almond Ale, Walnut Stout, Sunflower Saison, Pecan Porter and Pistachio Pale Ale.

Dutko’s favorite part of the bar is its quirky bathroom sign: “Nuts” and “No Nuts.”

The project, which measures about 25 inches wide and 16 inches tall, took him eight hours to design and build.

After posting a video on YouTube showing the build process, Dutko said he was “overwhelmed” with comments and requests to purchase the bar. He immediately applied for a design patent and is now planning to launch a business to sell The Nutty Bar for about $175 – $200.

The video!

A satirical book review

June 1, 2020 • 1:30 pm

When I woke up this morning these words from the Beatles song went through my head:

I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay;
Good morning, good morning.

That’s because I didn’t have anything in my head to write about, which is what I ponder when reading my emails in bed. So you get persiflage this afternoon!

Going through my files, I found an old book review that my friend Andrew Berry and I wrote some years ago. Andrew looked up our exchange, which dates to October of 2000. Berry had been commissioned by Nature to review of a number of children’s books about science. He and I felt that one was missing—the latest offering from the fabled J. K. Prowling. Even in the absence of such a book, we felt compelled to produce a review. For reasons best known to ourselves, the staff at Nature decided not to publish our review (Berry thinks that we actually submitted this—as a joke.)

I just found out, though that there really is a “Billy the Badger”: the mascot of Fulham FC in London:

The review:

Billy the Badger and his Forest Friends

By J K Prowling

ISBN 1008946
38pp, illus.
Harper-Collins Juvenile (Beginner Books No. 769)

Jerry A. Coyne

Andrew Berry

(Suggested title: “Badger Baloney”)

Billy the Badger has a problem.  Hordes of white-coated scientists, under the direction of the evil Dr. Ron Crabs, are engaged in a big experiment that will kill off not only Billy but many others of his kind. Under the delusion that badgers harbor brucellosis (which supposedly kills the farmers’ cows), the scientists try all manner of nefarious ways to kill badgers, including poisoning their favorite food, crumpets.  Knowing that the forest ecosystem will collapse without badgers, all the forest animals turn to Billy, the most sagacious beast among them, for help.  In this readable but ultimately unsatisfying and inaccurate book, Billy overcomes many obstacles to save his animal friends.  We will not reveal the extremely clever way this is done; but the denouement, in which Crabs is dragged into a badger set and ripped to pieces by his intended victims, is clearly not suitable for children under the age of sixteen.

Like a great deal of children’s literature on animal behaviour, this  book paints an inaccurate picture of the natural world.  We learn, for example,  that Billy lives in an oak-panelled set with Louis XV furnishing and a 16th century grandfather clock.  He speaks English, wears spectacles, drinks tea and eats crumpets dripping with melted butter. We are not badger experts, but a brief survey of the technical work on Meles meles reveals this portrait to be utterly misleading.  In fact, badgers, presumably with Billy among them, prefer a gritty Bauhaus look, and invariably speak Danish.  Spectacles are impractical because of their small ears; this results in the popularity of contact lenses throughout the species.  And badgers, as research has shown unequivocally, prefer Heineken when given a choice of beverages.  The crumpet issue remains controversial, and the author would have been well advised to steer clear of it.  Badgers are well known for liking bratwurst.  It’s a matter of great disappointment to us that books written for impressionable youngsters should be replete with errors and half truths.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this book from a biologist’s point of view is the complete absence of information about badger reproduction.  Billy has three young friends, Bertie, Benno and Bovril, but they appear magically, as if no interesting biology were involved in their genesis.  Yet painstaking observation by generations of dedicated scientists has given us an impressively complete picture of just what goes on in badger sets after the lights have been dimmed and the curtains drawn – after the sun has set on the set.  Why is this scenario not depicted in the book?  Billy is portrayed as a bachelor inhabiting an entirely male world. The dearth of badger females in Prowling’s worldview suggests a naïve view of badger biology – that it’s all about crumpets, armchairs, pipe tobacco, and dog-eared copies of The Pickwick Papers.  In fact, research has shown that the badger singles scene is vibrant and modern – more brushed aluminum than flock wall paper.  Prowling should have taken his readers into this exciting world of badger encounter and casual sex; for example, he could have set part of the story in a  hopping badger bar like “Jet Set” (turn right at the third oak after the big sycamore tree).  In missing these opportunities, Prowling wants us to assume that the numerous young badgers that populate the story appear from nowhere.  In these days of RU-480 and condom distribution in schools, surely our young people have a right to know how baby badgers are made.

Finally, the depiction of scientists as monsters bent on destroying anything furry is an unwarranted slur on our profession.  Neither of us has ever hurt a badger, and we know at least four other scientists who are humane and agreeable.  Mr. Prowling misleads an impressionable segment of the general public on every topic he addresses.  His portrayal of science and scientists is as error-strewn as his frankly whimsical and often fictional account of badger biology.  This is NOT a book  that should be on every graduate student’s shelf.  In fact, should you find a copy of it on a student’s shelf, you might want to think about pointing that student towards career alternative, like interior design.

This e-mail is confidential and should not be used by anyone who is either the original intended recipient or a large striped carnivore.  If you have received this e-mail in error, please inform Billy the Badger and delete it from your mailbox or any other storage mechanism.  Coyne and Berry cannot accept liability for any statements made which are clearly the sender’s own and not expressly made on behalf of John Brockmann, Norton Publishing, or one of their agents.