Whether they know it or not. But in some cases, it is not accidental. 

Recently, we saw that those friends and followers who think we are cool might not exist. But that’s just fluffy social media, right? Such a trend would never affect a stern discipline like science, right?

Well, as Canada’s CBC Radio tells it, recently some of the TV Simpsons gang got themselves a journal paper about “fuzzy” symmetries’s influence on the work of Japanese mad scientist Karthik Lakshminarayanan:

They recently received a bogus paper penned by Edna Krabappel, Maggie Simpson and Kim Jong Fun. The study is called “Fuzzy, Homogeneous Configurations” and it makes absolutely no sense. Brent talks to materials scientist Alex Smolyanitsky, who submitted the paper to the two journals, the Aperito Journal of NanoScience and the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems.

When we say that the paper makes no sense, we mean explicitly that it was produced by the SCIgen random text generator. The anomaly that would cause the paper to accidentally make sense probably exceeds the probability resources of the life of the universe. The paper doesn’t make sense because not making sense was the goal.

Some of these science journals are a new online, for-profit enterprise that sprang up rapidly starting around the turn of the century, selling publication as such rather than subscriptions to science libraries. Ottawa Citizen writer Tom Spears investigated this area himself, by producing a nonsense geology paper that eight out of 18 journals offered to publish:

Many journals now publish only online. And some of these, nicknamed predatory journals, offer fast, cut-rate service to young researchers under pressure to publish who have trouble getting accepted by the big science journals.

In academia, there’s a debate over whether the predators are of a lower-than-desired quality. But the Citizen’s experiment indicates much more: that many are pure con artists on the same level as the Nigerian banker who wants to give you $100 million.

Part of the issue is economic. The fake journals charge $500 to post online 48 hours later, but genuine journals with rigorous standards charge authors $1,000 to $5,000 (probably often paid for by institutions whose credibility is enhanced as a result of publication). So some young researchers, anxious to have just any publications, choose the fake route, apparently willing to risk the possibility that their work cannot be distinguished from guaranteed nonsense appearing in the same journal.

At the University of Saskatchewan, medical professor Roger Pierson wonders how can scientists trust the journal system to share knowledge.

“Basically you can’t any more,” he said, except for a stable of well-known journals from identifiable professional societies, where members recognize ethical work is in all their best interests.

But how well does that really work? Prestigious journal Nature reports

The publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 papers from their subscription services after a French researcher discovered that the works were computer-generated nonsense.

Over the past two years, computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, has catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based in New York. Both publishers, which were privately informed by Labbé, say that they are now removing the papers.

But notice, the prestigious houses did not discover the problem themselves by internal investigation; it was pointed out to them by an outsider.

A key probem is that most traditional methods for detecting bunkum no longer work as well. As Spears notes,

Journals are rated on their “impact factor” — how often their articles are used as references in later studies. And the predatory journals are now buying fake impact factors from equally fake rating agencies.

Then there are the individually directed citation scams, where researcher artificially increase their impact in “citation rings,” (in one case 60 papers retracted).

Probably, we will need ever more sophisticated new methods to deal with science scams in the Internet age. Fortunately, as the examples listed above show, skillful tracking devices can reveal patterns of fraud, scams, and dodgy practices. If you follow the issues, one useful source is Retraction Watch, which reports on a variety of breaking news on the subject of science “as it ain’t.”

But there is no magic poison pill and remedies will not come easy.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...