The physicist Alan Sokal famously satirised the field of postmodern cultural studies by writing a meaningless spoof paper and getting in published in a journal called Social Text. He described the paper, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, as ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense’. By getting it published, he sought to demonstrate that postmodernist academics were more interested in who wrote a paper and how it sounded than whether it says anything meaningful.
Sokal’s paper was published in a humanities journal with no peer review process. Could something similar happen in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Concerned about how well papers would be scrutinised by open access journals that charge publication fees to the authors, Philip Davis decided to find out.
Davis, a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, was made suspicious by the glut of unsolicited e-mails he received from Bentham Science Publishers inviting him to submit papers to and even sit on the editorial board of journals for which he had no expertise.
To put their editorial standards to the test, Davis created a gobbledegook paper using a computer programme called SCIgen. SCIgen was developed by three students at Massachussetts Institute of Technology to generate a nonsensical paper to submit to the World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI) in 2005. Their paper, titled ‘Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unificiation of Access Points and Redundancy’, was accepted – not so surprising when you consider that the WMSCI charged speakers $390 to attend.
Davis’s paper was titled ‘Deconstructing Access Points’. Here’s a sample paragraph:
Several encrypted and ubiquitous heuristics have been proposed in the literature. On the other hand, the complexity of their method grows logarithmically as Boolean logic grows. Further, unlike many previous methods, we do not attempt to manage or develop the evaluation of I/O automata. Furthermore, Karthik Lakshminarayanan constructed several lossless solutions, and reported that they have tremendous effect on the deployment of Internet QoS. This is arguably unreasonable. As a result, the class of frameworks enabled by TriflingThamyn is fundamentally different from previous approaches [13, 21]. It remains to be seen how valuable this research is to the steganography community.
Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that this was a hoax, Davis put down his institutional affiliation as the ‘Centre for Research in Applied Phrenology’ (CRAP). He submitted it to The Open Information Science Journal, and four months later it was accepted. He was invited to pay the $800 publication fee.
The journal claimed that they knew it was a hoax. ‘We tried to find out the identity of the individual by pretending the article had been accepted for publication when in fact it was not,’ Mahmood Alam, Bentham’s Director of Publications, told New Scientist. But on Friday, Bambang Parmanto, the editor-in-chief of The Open Information Science Journal resigned, blaming the mistake on ‘a breakdown in the process’.
Thanks to the internet, the subscription access model of scientific publishing is looking increasingly anachronistic, and it will surely only be a matter of time before all research papers are freely available for all to read. But the model in which journals make a profit from publication fees charged to authors is also undesirable: it risks excluding research from developing countries or less well-funded fields. Further, as Philip Davis has demonstrated, the greed of the publisher can mean that the review process is not as scrupulous as we would hope. It is important that we come up with a system in which scientific papers are published so that anyone can access them freely, but without compromising the integrity of the peer review apparatus. The best solution must be one in which no one makes a profit from publishing.