Good, bad, bogus and junk sciences

Predatory journals proliferate what one may call Junk Science

October 11, 2015 05:00 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST

Dr Martin Gardner, of “Scientific American”, in his book: “Science -good, bad and bogus”, exposed several experiments and theories, propounded by some “scientists” as bogus. The way we determine whether a scientific theory or claim is good or not through the process of repetition and verification. If I follow the same procedure, use the same materials, but do not get what you have claimed, then your claim is very likely false. This is what Karl Popper called as the touchstone of verifiability and falsifiability.

Often a well- respected theory or claim turns out to be inadequate or even downright incorrect. But when one claims long-accepted set of assumptions to be wrong, the community looks at his claims with a fine-truth comb before accepting or rejecting it. Alchemists long tried to create gold out of a variety of other materials and failed. Now we know why, thanks to what we understand in modern science. Alchemy was bad science.

Bogus science? One Mr Ramar Pillai claimed in 1990s that he can transmute water into gasoline using a mixture of herbs. He was exposed as a fraud whose claim vaporized faster than petrol. His claim was bogus, one with the ulterior idea of making money and obtaining publicity.

We now have a new avatar which is best described as Junk Science. This has arisen in the area of science journals, where a scientist publishes his research work. How? In the long respected tradition of science, when one wants to publish his scientific contribution, he submits it to a journal. The editor sends it to a few (anonymous) fellow scientists for review. The author responds to the criticism and resubmits. The manuscript is then accepted and published, or asked to be re-revised or rejected. This practice assumes honesty, professionalism, no bias or personal agenda by the referees. The tougher such peer evaluation, the better the quality of the paper and reputation of the author on one hand, and the standing of the journal on the other. Some journals are regarded as ‘high impact’ while some others are “also-rans”. And the standing of a scientist in the field is “measured” by where his publications have appeared and what his “Impact factor” has been. Happily enough, all this has been happening for centuries absolutely free of charge, in the tradition of free exchange of intellectual ideas. Alas, profit motive has overtaken this goodwill scientific service. Recently, many of these ‘high impact’ journals are owned by a small group of science journal publishers, who now demand enormous amount of money (some over $ 2000) for publication of a paper in them (and charging a reader for even accessing a paper in them, ‘pay-to-read’). Disgusted by this ‘cartelization’, scientists have initiated steps towards “open access”, exemplified by the “Public Library of Science (PLoS) group, which charge an author a small amount (to cover operating costs; waived if he cannot afford to pay), and all articles in these journals downloadable for free. The practice of refereeing, and accepting submissions by authors in these journals is just as rigorous as in the ‘high impact’ ones mentioned above. PLoS journals have thus brought back the value systems that characterized the scientific community.

A despicable recent development is the arrival of what some have called “Predatory Journals”. These are other forms of “open access” journals, most with fancy titles, started by bit players out to make money. They use all of today’s technology, but do not practice tough evaluation of submissions through accomplished peers (who take time to do so). Speedy turn- around is the game here. Your ‘review’ will be done in 48 hrs, and your paper is guaranteed to be published, but you must shell out anywhere from $ 1000-2000. These predatory journals proliferate what one may call as Junk Science. What is published is not necessarily bogus, but often half-baked, and thus not necessarily rigorous science. But they cater to an author who wants to fatten his curriculum vitae for promotion.

Such a Junk Science article has appeared in one such predatory (‘Junk’) journal called “Agricultural Sciences”, with the title: “Do GMOs accumulate formaldehyde and disrupt molecular systems equilibria? Systems biology may provide answers”. In a hard- hitting critique of this paper, the science writer Kavin Senapathy (see http://www.

project-syndicate.org/

commentary/gmos-junk-science-by-henry-i-miller-and-kavin-senapthy-2015-09) says the prediction made in the paper “is akin to a meteorologist predicting from his model that it will be sunny all day, instead of looking out of the window to see whether rain is falling”. A biologist, upon reading the paper, offered to work with the authors and test in his lab the levels of formaldehyde in genetically modified soyabean and compare it with the control (non-GM soy). The authors declined. One wonders why. Are they anti-GMO?

D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

dbala@lvpei.org

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