Scientific journals: the reader, too, must beware

To laymen, the scientific literature is an arcane treasury of knowledge guarded by expert editors and reviewers who ensure research papers at least meet minimum quality standards. What, then, is one to make of reports that these guardians don't know a fake when they see one?

A recent issue of Nature warns of "an outbreak of piracy in the literature." It seems that several cases have surfaced where papers submited to journals, and published, appear in large part to be virtual word-for-word copies of material already published elsewhere by other authors.

Meanwhile, in a kind of scholarly "Abscam" operation, psychologists Douglas Peters and Stephen Ceci of the University of North Dakota have resubmitted lightly disguised copies of papers to journals that had originally published them. They found that 19 out of 22 editors and reviewers failed to detect the plagiarism, according to an item in New Scientist reporting the scientists' preliminary assessment of their study given at a meeting of theExeter, England, last March.

Since the piracy seems to have been largely the work of one person, it probably can be considered an aberration. But it does suggest that editors and reviewers, swamped as all experts are by the flood of scientific publication, are not as widely read in their fields as one might expect.

The Peters and Ceci findings indicate that these guardians may not even recognize work they supposedly have once considered in detail. What is more, they seem to base judgment partly on the reputations of the authors of papers and of their institutions.

The two psychologists gave the papers bogus titles and names of authors and institutions not in the main stream. They also changed the wording (but not the substance) of abstracts and of the first two paragraphs so that a file search in journal offices wouldn't readily turn up the originals. Otherwise, the papers were blatant plagiarisms. Yet papers that had been published before now were rejected. Research methods and analyses were criticized. Changes in writing that once had been acceptable were suggested.

It would seem that, lacking prestigious labels, the papers were put in another mental category by editors and reviewers. As Peters and Ceci observed, "Perhaps the original authors of our bogus papers received a less critical, more forgiving evaluation than did our pseudonyms from 'no-name' institutions."

Perhaps, also, such things merely show that busy journal editors and reviewers are human. But in laughing at their peccadilloes, don't miss the larger lesson -- publication in a scientific, journal is no guarantee that the work reported does in fact meet minimum quality standards. And if those papers inspire alarming or sensational new reports, laymen would do well to substitute their own good sense for the supposed expert guardianship of the journals.

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