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The rise of predatory publishing practices has led to a flood of fake scientific papers in the scientific literature, as highlighted by the recent findings of a study published by Bernhard Sabel and colleagues. The study found that up to 34% of neuroscience papers published in 2020 were likely made up or plagiarized, as well as 24% of medical papers. This revelation indicates that nearly half a million fake scientific papers could be published per year.

The findings of Sabel’s research underscore the ongoing presence of paper mills that allow researchers to pad their publication records by paying for fake papers or undeserved authorship. Paper mills have succeeded by undermining a system that has had no way to cope with their efforts. The findings of the Sabel study also suggest that predatory journals have made matters worse as they carry the issue of disinformation a step further. For instance, some have experienced the distressing manner in which known make-believe articles have online traction as misinformation.

Predatory journals are suspected of publishing papers that are low quality and unsound, often exhibiting a lack of rigor and comprehensiveness associated with scientific integrity. Yet, despite their apparent functional redundancy, they remain in business. The onus, therefore, falls to the consumer of academic publications to judge whether a journal is genuine or not. However, Sabel’s study shows that discernment alone may not be enough to handle this issue. It falls to the larger scientific community to take the lead in fighting against the proliferation of fake scientific papers.

The proliferation of fake scientific papers raises the stakes for the academic publishing world and society at large. Fake science can have a massive impact on society’s health and economy, making it critical to address this issue. For instance, if a drug is advertised that’s not working, or if side-effects or risks are not communicated as they should be, there could be lives lost. Public health is not the only area affected, technology, computer science, agriculture and ecology, and many other areas are all, correspondingly, at risk of false information.

Predatory journals add to this problem by giving a stamp of approval from one of the largest vetted biomedical research databases in the world, PubMed, despite potential associations with disinformation. One researcher received an invitation to submit his research to a pair of academic journals, which he suspected to be a predatory journal. To test this hypothesis, he submitted a spoof research manuscript consisting of seven pages of flapdoodle with references, loosely following the plot of the TV series “Breaking Bad” — about the educational value of high school students driving into the desert and making drugs. The paper was ridiculous, with claims like New Mexico being part of the Galapagos Islands, craniotomy as a legitimate means of assessing student learning, and all figures made in Microsoft Paint. The author even listed Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, lead characters of “Breaking Bad,” as coauthors. The paper made it through peer review and was published by the predatory journal, despite its obvious flaws and without having to pay the publishing fee. The experiment highlights the danger of fake science proliferating through predatory journals. Moreover, they sometimes increase impact factors to increase their scientific influence and profit margins. This issue of predatory publishing raises a need for discernment and common sense from individual science consumers and better systems for rooting out misinformation online.

The rise of fake scientific papers can affect public discourse, particularly during a global health emergency. Access to legitimate sources of scientific information is critical in an era of increasing online publishing and open-access journals that purport to bring scientific research out of the ivory tower. Dealing with predatory journals in the post-COVID world will require discernment and common sense on the part of individual readers. However, the ongoing issue of paper mills and predatory journals requires a larger response from the scientific community, as well as social media sites and other stakeholders, to halt the continuing rise of fake scientific papers and stop the proliferation of predatory publishing practices.

The proliferation of fake scientific papers, coupled with the inability to discern whether a paper is real or fake, poses a significant dilemma in today’s information age. With nearly half a million fake scientific papers being published per year, the need for a solution has never been greater. Even worse, the fact that a spoof research manuscript about the educational value of high school students making drugs in the desert made it through peer review and was published highlights just how broken the system is. Real solutions, like the use of artificial intelligence, need to be implemented to identify fake papers, but until then, it is up to individual readers to use discernment and common sense to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It is also important to note that while artificial intelligence has the potential to detect fake scientific papers, it is not entirely foolproof and can also be abused by paper mills to further their fraudulent activities. By analyzing large datasets of scientific papers, predatory publishers could use AI to identify temporal patterns to bypass detection and perpetuate their fake science. Thus, there is a need for a multifaceted approach to tackle the problem of fake scientific papers, including greater scrutiny of predatory publishing practices, the use of AI in detecting fake papers, and building greater awareness among the scientific community and society at large. Ultimately, this entire problem highlights that “objective truth,” even within the scientific community, is essentially subjective, and it remains to be seen whether efforts to fight predatory journals and fake scientific papers will bear any fruit.

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