A bogus scientific paper on Star Wars’ ‘midi-chlorians’ ended up being published by three scientific journals.

The Force.

Image credits Julio Marquez / Flickr.

Not all scientific journals hold themselves to a high standard of quality — some, in fact, don’t even bother reading the paper if they can smell some cash incoming. Which is unfortunate, counterproductive, and as neuroscientist and blogger Neuroskeptic found, kinda funny at times. Betting on the low/non-existent quality requirements of predatory journals, Neuroskeptic submitted a glaringly fake paper to nine journals. Four of them accepted it, and three even went as far as publishing it.

The force (of greed)

Predatory journals are publications whose business models boils down to exploiting researchers into paying fees to get their papers published. Greenhorns desperate to get their work published often fall for predatory journals, and shell out quite a bit of cash just to get a foot in the door.

But getting published in such a journal doesn’t really help. For starters, they generally have zero peer-review and will publish anything. Anything. Case in point, Neuroskeptic’s paper: It was a comprehensive body of work on midi-chlorians — you know, those fictional beings from the Star Wars universe that generate the Force — which he submitted it to nine scientific journals to check how closely they read the papers.

He even made it easy for them. Neuroskeptic himself explains that even a layman could tell the paper was a fake (and chock-full of Star Wars references, for that matter) in five minutes or less because:

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It’s authored by Dr. Lucas McGeorge and Dr. Annette Kin. At first glance it looks science-y enough, but only because Neuroskeptic copy-pasted stuff off the Wikipedia page on mitochondrion, which is a real thing, and reworded it to midi-chlorian/midichlorian, which is bogus. And just in case peer-reviewers (and I use the term in the loosest way possible) didn’t catch on by now, there are a few Star Wars passages subtly placed throughout the paper:

“Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside in all living cells – without the midi-chlorians, life couldn‘t exist, and we‘d have no knowledge of the force,” the paper reads.

“Midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism. They continually speak to us, telling us the will o‘ the force. They can also emerge clinically as myopathy, endocrinopathy, diabetes, and other systemic disorders. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear ’em speaking to you.”

Even if these hints/glaring red flags went unnoticed, Neuroskeptic outright admitted in the paper that the “majority of the text in the current paper” was copied from Wikipedia. Surely that would put the journals on guard, right?

Nope! Three of the journals just went ahead and published the paper for free. Another, the American Journal of Medical and Biological Research, accepted the paper but demanded a $360 fee before publishing it. Some other journals which didn’t accept it did pick up on the references, but weirdly enough asked Neuroskeptic to revise the paper and resubmit it. They even suggested reverting the spelling of “midichlorians” back to “mitochondria”.

In a galaxy far far away

I won’t lie, I had a chuckle with the whole thing. But it does point out to how dysfunctional the peer review process can become, and raises questions regarding even well-established publications — after all, they’re in the business for profits, not science. Sure, they live and die by the trustworthiness and quality of the material they publish, but at the same time, they have a vested interest in publishing (and then cashing in ridiculously well) from as many papers as possible. A way of doing business which has lately put them at odds ends with a lot of researchers.

It also exposes the first kind of publishers — the predatory journals — for what they are: scams trying to tick off real researchers and their work.

“It’s just a reminder that at some ‘peer reviewed’ journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all,” Neuroskeptic explains.

“This matters because scientific publishers are companies selling a product, and the product is peer review.”

Not the first time

It’s not the first time predatory journals have been exposed in a hilarious way. In 2013, a science paper citing Michael Jackson and Borat was easily published into such a journal. Quoting the results published by Disney character Goofy in the scientific magazine “Mikijev Zabavnik” (comic for children), and noted researcher A.S. Hole., the paper was basically a senseless, jargon-riddled story that doesn’t really say anything. Just one year later, in 2014, a study by Maggie Simpson and Edna Krabappel (two fictional characters from The Simpsons) was accepted by two scientific journals. Titled “Fuzzy Homogeneous Configurations,” the article makes absolutely no sense and was actually just a random string of works generated by a computer program – yet both the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems, and the Aperito Journal of NanoScience Technology agreed to publish it. While this is quite hilarious, it also highlights a massive underlying problem: while many journals hold scientists to a ridiculously rigorous process, some take advantage of this and basically rip people off. In recent times, this process has been especially prevalent in countries like China, but the full extent of this problem is not yet understood.

The bogus paper “Mitochondria: Structure, Function and Clinical Relevance” has been published in the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access, the Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (these two journals have since taken down the paper), and the American Research Journal of Biosciences.