This past week, assistant zoology professor Daniel Baldassarre at SUNY Oswego published a paper in a supposedly scientific journal with the following abstract:
Many people wonder: what’s the deal with birds? This is a common query. Birds are pretty weird. I mean, they have feathers. WTF? Most other animals don’t have feathers. To investigate this issue, I looked at some birds. I looked at a woodpecker, a parrot, and a penguin. They were all pretty weird! In conclusion, we may never know the deal with birds, but further study is warranted.
Yes, this is a real scientist and technically a real scientific journal. And while the paper rules (I encourage you to read the whole thing), it’s just the latest sting exposing the world of poor-quality, pay-for-publish journals.
After receiving an email soliciting submissions, Baldassarre sent a draft of “What’s the Deal With Birds?” to a journal called Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews. That journal, which assured Baldassarre it was not predatory and that the manuscript would be reviewed by experts, asked for a nearly $1,700 (£1,360) publishing fee, he said. After some negotiation, he said he got the journal to publish his paper for free.
“They clearly did not look at it at all, which is one of the big hallmarks of these outfits,” Baldassarre told Gizmodo. “Why they’re obviously so damaging is that anything they do publish is not subject to any kind of review at all.”
Some highlights from the paper include its opening lines, “Birds are very strange. Some people are like ‘whoa they’re flying around and stuff, what’s the deal with that?’”
The methods section reads: “I looked at three different birds: a woodpecker, a parrot, and a penguin. I looked really close at them, squinting and everything, to try and figure out what was up with them.”
The paper’s acknowledgments: “We thank Big Bird from Sesame Street for comments on the manuscript. Several trained monkeys transcribed videos.”
Figure 1: Relationships between climate change (a), looks like a fish (b), and weird beak. X-values were scaled between 0 and 1 for visualisation
purposes. Graphic: Daniel T. Baldassarre (Sci J Research & Rev.)
Scientist and blogger David Kaye did a deep dive into this specific company’s shady journals that you can read here, but the Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews and its publisher, Iris Publishers, have all of the trappings of a predatory operation. At best, scientists use these platforms to publish joke articles on birds and Star Wars. But these journals could be used by scientists hoping to spread bunk science or pad their resumes and might dupe inexperienced scientists, who might not be able to tell which journals are predatory and which aren’t.
Iris Publishing is part of a much larger problem of journals that publish low-quality research for exorbitant fees. These journals will often spam scientists with requests for submissions or asking them to be on their editorial boards. While they’ve got the same reputation as so-called Nigerian Prince scam emails, they clearly make enough money through their pay-for-publish strategy to keep going.
But scientists are trying to make others aware of these journals – this sting is one of many that continue to expose these journals. One of the most famous is John Bohannon’s Who’s Afraid of Peer Review, published in Science. Baldassarre hopes that papers like his will spread awareness of the existence of these predatory journals and what they look like, and hopefully to get people to stop publishing in them.
Baldassarre realises that’s a bit of a pipe dream. But still, “hopefully more people realise these journals exist and can see how to identify them and not fall for the scam,” he told Gizmodo. “The only thing that will put these guys out of business is if no one sends them manuscripts.”
I for one welcome more articles asking the important questions about birds. For instance, how dare they? And who do they think they are?