You Know These Studies are Good Since They’ve Been Reviewed…by a Dog

Predatory journals are so busy scamming scholars that seven big ones appointed a dog posing as a PhD to review submissions.

The Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine sounds like a solid, peer-reviewed academic publication. It’s not. It’s one of many “predatory” journals, alongside the Journal of Finance and Economics — as opposed to the legitimate and almost identically named Journal of Economics and Finance — and the GSTF Journal of Engineering Technology, a nefarious knockoff of the respected Journal of Engineering Technology published by the American Society for Engineering Education. What distinguishes the Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine, however, is one of its editors, Dr. Olivia Doll. She’s a dog. A Staffordshire terrier from Perth, Australia. Her owner, Mike Daube submitted her “credentials” to the journal, about which Daube had doubts, and they, well, bit, appointing her to their editorial board. Six other journals did the same.


Daub was conducting an experiment to see if the journals were the fraudulent operations he suspect they were, ones that scarcely even looked at — much less peer-reviewed — research they were happy to publish for a fee. You’d think the “Dr." Doll’s CV might’ve tipped them off, had they even bothered to look it over. Her research interests included ”the benefits of abdominal massage for medium-sized canines.“ She was described as  a senior lecturer at Subiaco College of Veterinary Science — which doesn’t exist — having formerly been an “associate” of the Shenton Park Institute for Canine Refuge Studies, a dog shelter that does.

 

Predatory journals are a skeevy industry of entities posing as legitimate publishers of academic research, and a very good reason to verify the source of any new breakthrough you've read about. They've been around just about as long as there's been an open-access movement in scholarly journals.

Prior to open-access, articles accepted for publication by journals were available only to the journals’ subscribers, typically libraries at universities. In these days of education cuts, that includes fewer and fewer institutions, and results in a wealth of research other scholars can’t access. To remedy this, legit journals now offer an open-access option by which a scholar whose work is selected for publication and passes through peer review can pay a fee to make it freely available online for other scholars. The fees run upward of about $1,000, and many academics therefore can’t afford open-access publication. Some government-funded research requires that reports are published open-access, with the fee built into a project’s grant proposal.

Predatory journals with legitimate-sounding names appeared as a scam offering open-access publication to scholars. After all, not every paper is accepted by a real journal and approved for publication. But the lack of true peer review (woof!) and any standard at all beyond a willingness to pay means that publishing in a predatory journal is pretty much worthless.

Except that it may actually work for some things. Hirings do occur based on publications in these journals, and promotions are granted. Economics professor Derek Pyne tells the New York Times, “I can say that such publications do not seem to hurt promotion prospects.” In an op-ed he wrote for the Ottawa Citizen, he noted that universities may even reimburse academics for publication fees, so your tax dollars may be paying for some of this nonsense. And articles in predatory journals gain unearned credibility by appearing in Google Scholar searches, right alongside peer-reviewed papers.

This scam requires little investment from the publishers, since they typically publish online only, and there’s no actual review of the materials. Meanwhile, there’s big money to be made from a steady stream of academics desperate to get their work out into the world or inflate their credentials for professional reasons. Pyne wrote in his op-ed that there were 420,000 papers published in predatory journals in 2014 alone. Some predatory journals will even, for a fee, pretend their scholars’ research has been presented at make-believe conferences. 

Daub’s prank was not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Last March, a group of researchers from University of Wrocław in Poland invented a fake academic named “Anna O. Szust,” oszust being the Polish word for “fraud,” and submitted her name and clearly loopy credentials as a reviewer for 360 journals listed in three well-known directories: Journal Citation Reports (JCR), Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and Beall’s list. The results were published in Nature: 8 DOAJ journals and 40 journals from Beall’s list accepted “Dr. Fraud” as a reviewer.

(NATURE)

Though predatory publishers promote their services via spammy emails to academics and graduate students “inviting” them to publish in their journals (for a fee), the truth is that the scam is so well-known at this point that they may not really be fooling their marks so much these days. There are so many of these faux journals now that fees for them can be cheaper than those charged by legitimate journals, and of course, there’s no competition to publish based on the quality of the research or institutional pedigree. And, hey, an academic can’t not publish and thrive.

It could be argued that such a journal’s prey isn’t just the scholar — it’s also the rest of the world for whom the journal pastes a veneer of legitimacy onto research that may or may not deserve it. 

Certainly these journals are lowering the quality of discourse in a era when the importance of actual facts is already under attack. University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, who after all coined the term “predatory journals,” has said of the whole thing, “This is polluting the scientific record with junk science, and demarcation has essentially failed. I believe this will worsen in time and the notion of what constitutes valid science and what isn’t will become increasingly vague.” He told the New Yorker recently, “The biggest victim is science itself.”

 

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.