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Report: Nearly 25% of medical science papers and 34% of neuroscience papers are bogus

Photo illustration by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

For years, the public has been instructed to "follow the science." That might prove especially difficult if the science is bunkum.

German researchers have determined that at least one-quarter of the scientific papers circulated in recent years were likely plagiarized or altogether bogus.

The driving force behind this worsening trend is so-called paper mills, which "use AI-supported, automated production techniques at scale and sell fake publications to students, scientists, and physicians under pressure to advance their careers."

While fake publications are not a new phenomenon — with some activists even disseminating their own to indict the academy in recent years — it was previously unknown how bad the situation was in the world of biomedicine.

Bernhard Sabel of Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, who also serves as editor in chief of the journal "Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience," endeavored to find out using "a simple method to red-flag them and estimate their number."

According to the newly released study conducted by Sabel and other German researchers, which has itself yet to undergo peer review, there were an estimated 300,000 red-flagged, fake publications among the 1.3 million biomedical publications listed in the SCImago portal. Sabel estimated around 34% of neuroscience papers published in 2020 were bogus.

"It is just too hard to believe," Sabel told the journal Science, suggesting that it is as if "somebody tells you 30% of what you eat is toxic."
To ascertain whether a publication was legitimate or not, Sabel sent questionnaires to various authors.
"Based on author responses, three indicators were identified: 'author’s private email', 'international co-author' and 'hospital affiliation,'" he said.

After fine-tuning his approach such that he was able to flag 90% of bogus papers in a test sample, Sabel found that the RFP rate skyrocketed from 16% in 2010 to 28% in 2020.

When broken down on a national basis, the worst offenders were Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, and India — with China being the worst of all, accounting for 55.8% of all potentially fraudulent papers. The U.S., by way of comparison, accounted for 7.3% of potential fake publications globally.

Sabel underscored that the "scale and proliferation of fake publications in biomedicine can damage trust in science, endanger public health, and impact economic spending and security."

The study noted, for instance, that "712 problematic papers were cited >17,000 times and estimated that abut one quarter of them may misinform future development of human therapies."

Just as academics' are desperate to keep up with universities' publication expectations, paper mills are keen to keep up with academics' demand for bogus papers.

"Assuming an average $10,000 price tag for a fake publication, the estimated annual revenue of paper mills is up to $3-4 billion," reported Sabel.

"Paper mills have made a fortune by basically attacking a system that has had no idea how to cope with this stuff," Dorothy Bishop, a University of Oxford psychologist who studies bogus publishing practices told Science.

It is presently unclear how the ubiquity of generative AI technologies like ChatGPT and Bard will affect this growing industry, although the study suggests that the "emergence of Chat-GPT and more sophisticated large language models might amplify the production of fake papers at less cost."

In addition to Sabel's technique, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, which represents 120 publishers, is working on tools to similarly separate the wheat from the chaff.

Joris van Rossum, the product director of the corresponding initiative called Integrity Hub, called it "a bit of an arms race."

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