Academic fake news: “Information Wars”

July 23, 2018
Felicia Smith
Academic fake news: “Information Wars”

Part 1 of 4


Fake news is a hot topic that is primarily focused on either fabricated or unfavorable media accounts, usually reported on digital outlets, newspapers, cable news or social media. I would be remiss if I failed to state that dismissing unfavorable or unflattering information is a human impulse. For example, it can be extremely cathartic to weigh yourself on a scale then yell, “fake news!” The problem lies with seeking confirmation bias about important events that impact the greater society writ large.

To highlight actual bogus and misleading information in the field of education, I have composed this four-part blog series concerning falsified information in academia. My series deals with three specific aspects that have fallen prey to predatory publishers: journals, conferences and textbooks. I conclude with suggested solutions to combat these purveyors of misinformation.

For purposes of my series, fake news is a catchall phrase that includes any fabricated information disseminated with verifiably false data or details, in different formats, across various delivery platforms. Henceforth, I will simply refer to these types of spurious communications as “academic fake news.”

I would like to caution readers that in this series, the ubiquitous nature of falsified information is likened unto warfare. The military narrative was derived from my impression that predatory publishers are intentionally weaponizing information. Consequently, my series is framed as the Great Information Wars of the 21st Century. To be clear, I am in no way advocating for actual violence. The military rhetoric in this series is strictly metaphoric.

The fake news incursion into academia deploys stealthy tactics used in guerilla warfare. This is a brilliant strategy because you cannot fight an enemy that you cannot see. Consequently, conscientious information literacy professionals are waging a fact-based counterinsurgency. Examples of this fake news incursion includes predatory journals with pretend peer reviewers; purchased presentation slots at sham conference venues and textbooks containing misleading depictions or nefariously excluding unjust and oppressive historical events. Despite the trepidation and no matter how harrowing the fake news situation is, librarians, educators and academics must fortify our patrons for battle. This necessitates teaching consumers how to identify fake news in everyday life as well as in scholarly materials.

My fascination with fake news, or falsified data, began during my career as a Certified Criminal Defense Private Investigator, in Chicago. I specialized in narcotics and homicides cases; so, naturally dealing with unreliable information was a job requirement. As a result, I instinctively take a cynical approach to new information. As a librarian, I published an article called “Weary Helper,” that illustrated similarities between the two professions. Obviously, both careers involve information-seeking expertise. Both require the ability to critically evaluate information and earnestly assess situations. I am often asked, which job is more dangerous? As a Private Investigator, I was required to wear a bullet-proof vest and carry a firearm. I had a .357 Magnum revolver with a pearl handle, by the way. But as a librarian, I am required to arm myself against the onslaught from a fully stocked artillery of fakery. So, in their own way, both jobs are petrifying.

Predatory journals

Predatory Journals

It is widely accepted that scholarly material has been thoroughly evaluated by experts in the relevant fields, ergo peer-reviewed. Conversely, predatory or fake journals, as the name indicates, undergo no such authentication. Oftentimes they have 100% acceptance rates. Most fake journals charge author publication fees, or what I refer to as “pay-to-play.”

The phrase peer-reviewed journal has traditionally bestowed materials with an inherent sense of unquestioned credibility, especially in scientific circles. However, fakeness has penetrated the heretofore academic fortress of authenticity. The infiltrators are predatory journals and imitation conferences that have hijacked legitimate enterprises and are impersonating them for monetary gain. Predatory for-profit journals have increased at an alarming rate. In 2015, more than half a million authors had their papers published in predatory journals. It is uncertain how many were hoodwinked by sneaky publishers versus how many were willing partners with professional motives.

Predatory publishers are not solely at fault for this growing trend. There is plenty of blame to go around. Legitimate journals also shoulder some of the blame because they are cogs in a vicious cycle of supply and demand. This cycle is compounded by fierce demands forcing tenure-seeking faculty to publish. To the dismay of many, legitimate academic serials, including scientific journals have begun allowing citations from personal web pages that have not been vetted. They even go so far as to permit unsubstantiated postings from blogs, as acceptable evidence. This is potentially dangerous, because these papers are touted as being scholarly material based on expert analysis and reviewed for accuracy. However, an unacceptable number of reputable journals also publish papers that contain maliciously false findings. So, the question is, “who is the real bad guy?”

For legitimate journals that rely on peer-review processes for authentication, there is yet another threat; that of fake reviewers. Really? Pretend peer-reviewers? Is nothing sacred? Predatory publishers that conduct make-believe or non-existent peer-review are poisoning scientific scholarship with pseudo-science. This is a new battlefront in the Great Information Wars.

In addition to legitimate journals, academic employees can be complicit in these fraudulent publishing practices, as well. Willingly or even unwittingly. It is understandable how employees could be incentivized to do whatever it takes to meet their onerous, publish or perish career demands. Many academics are required to publish in order to get promotions or tenure. There is additional pressure to publish, expeditiously. Whereas these employees may be willing accomplices, others might, unknowingly, be duped into publishing in seemingly legitimate journals that turn out to be skillfully camouflaged predators.

Predatory publishers provide a quick and easy solution for academic employees who are desperate to get published. Since predatory publishers do not bother with real, or vigorous peer-review their turnaround time is remarkably swift. Predatory publishers lure their prey by sending out (spam) emails offering a seemingly elusive opportunity to publish. Their process is simple. Authors pay the publication fee and their article gets published in a predatory journal, lickety split, thereby meeting one of the requirements for career advancement. The publisher gets their sweet-sweet cash. It is a veritable win-win situation. It almost sounds like a victimless exchange. Although upon closer inspection, there are victims, not the least of which is academic integrity.

Shockingly, there do not appear to be negative consequences or disincentives for publishing in predatory journals. Interestingly, those authors’ reputations, do not suffer, usually because very few people can actually identify offending journals. It is truly disheartening to watch as trust in institutions erodes in all facets of life. Sadly, faith in academia is no exception. Institutes of higher learning are under constant siege from academic fake news assaults. It is highly likely that the majority of authors are innocently depositing their scholarship into predatory journals. It is conceivable that first time authors might not be familiar with standard publishing practices and norms. For the un-initiated, the daunting publishing process can be quite perplexing. Having said that, it is doubtful that all academic employees are hapless prey that have been swindled by predatory publishers.

Some employees surely must be willing to exploit a pay-to-play opportunity, viewing it a mutually beneficial transaction. In those instances, the co-conspirators are hastening the demise of institutions’ academic integrity and scholastic credibility. This connivance brings to mind the quote that states, “When the ax came into the forest the trees said the handle is one of us.”

Obviously, predatory journals pose a clear and present danger to academic credibility and to individual employee reputations. But remember that journals and academic employees are not the only culprits. It may be surprising to learn that academic institutions are not blameless, either. Quantitative performance indicators, such as publication counts, often form the basis for research rankings and funding at academic institutions. This reliance on published scholarship to bolster reputations is like rocket fuel for the academic fake news blitzkrieg.

It is comforting to believe that not everyone is in cahoots with the fake news transgressors. Notwithstanding, legitimate resources do unknowingly spread this false information, also. For example, most predatory journals are included in Google Scholar as well as in academic databases. Google Scholar is the world’s largest and most-used academic search engine. This fact is not lost on predatory journals that proudly advertise that Google Scholar indexes them. This indexing claim is usually not fake; even though the journals are themselves, fake. Irony!

Anytime legitimate journals allow unverified, unsubstantiated information to be wrenched from the nether regions of the Internet and injected into the academic literature landscape, they have been enlisted into the lamentable ranks of the academic fake news brigade. By disseminating junk science and garbage information, they are giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

All of these attacks make me nostalgic for, a simpler time, when the main complaint about scholarly journals was the cost increases by predatory publishers. Back then, I published an article relating the unsustainably high journal prices to the shark in the movie Jaws.  My article depicted a brave group of heroes that I dubbed the Journal Warriors Assault Squad or J.A.W.S. for short. Just like those courageous warriors of yesteryear, today’s information warrior squadron is locked in a life or death battle against predatory publishers.

This mortal combat fight is for the survival of the attributes that make scholarly material valued. Those attributes include: scrutinized authenticity; unvarnished truth; substantiated accuracy and verifiably factual data, to name just a few. Information literacy warriors must be vigilant in order to vanquish the enemy of those treasured principles.

The aforementioned J.A.W.S. article was my way of sounding the alarm about predatory publishing practices. That was over a decade ago. Many articles credit Jeffrey Beall as having coined the term predatory publisher after he compiled his list of potential, possible or probable predatory journals, which he published in 2010. This is my very own, personalized fake news and I take umbrage. In my article published at least 3 years before the Beall’s list, I used the phrase “predatory publishers,” at least four times. But, I digress.

As I stated, my article was an abbreviation for Journal Assault Warrior Squad (JAWS). My article drew parallels between the islanders in the fictional movie Jaws, and librarians in real life.

Captain Quint, Chief Brody, and Hooper in Jaws represented librarians actively fighting to protect their budgets in my version of JAWS. Islanders, in the movie, were worried about saving their tourism economy which in my article represented librarians concerned with saving their meager serials budgets. It goes without saying that the shark in Jaws, represented predatory publishers in my article.

At the time that I published J.A.W.S, the predatory publishing practices dealt with skyrocketing and unaffordable journal pricing. Now, I see the same type of predatory publisher behavior, only this time it is regarding fake journals. The predators in my article, from 10 years ago, were limited and localized, similar to movie sharks and salt water. But nowadays, movie sharks are flying through the air, in tornadoes no less. Similarly, predatory publishers are attacking from every angle, news reports, Internet hoaxes, fake journals and even fake conferences. If I were to write an updated version of my article JAWS, instead of one single shark, there would be a tornado filled with sharks. One might call it a Sharknado!

To continue contemplating this riveting topic, please stay tuned for part two of my four-part series tomorrow.