My job running PainScience.com used to be a dream job, but in the last few years, a couple things have started to harsh my self-employment buzz …
- The constant exposure to ignorant but strongly held opinions, the “controversial” stuff, the hate mail, the customers with bizarre expectations, et cetera.
- The incredibly low quality of science that's available. I started out with the goal of publishing a website about science-based medicine for aches and pains, only to slowly, depressingly discover that it’s nearly impossible, because there is so little good science to base it on.
Thanks to those, running this website is no longer the can-you-believe-I-get-to-do-this-for-a-living gig that it once was. Today’s post is about the second problem, and specifically one of the bizarre new reasons it has become such a problem. It was barely on my radar 10 years ago. It was barely on anyone’s.
“Junk science” and crappy journals have always existed, but it’s worse now
There are now at least several thousand (bare minimum) completely fraudulent scientific journals that exist only to take money from gullible and/or desperate academics who must “publish or perish.” It’s a scam that has exploded into a full-blown industry on an almost unthinkable scale since the 1990s. These so-called journals collectively publish millions of papers annually with “no or trivial peer review, no obvious quality control, and no editorial board oversight” (see Predatory Journals Are Such a Big Problem It's Not Even Funny).
Papers in predatory journals are annoyingly similar to the real thing
Tragically, most of the papers they publish have every superficial appearance of being real scientific papers. The substantive difference is that real scientific papers are peer-reviewed, and these papers are not! But the authors are actual scientists, who work at real organizations, who actually care about their research and their careers — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t pay predatory journals to publish their papers! Some of their research might even be half decent, and might have even made it into a real journal. But only some. Much of it is blatantly incompetent, fraudulent, or just daft, and wouldn’t have have had a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted by a real journal. Even most of the better ones wouldn’t cut it at a real journal, or at least not without significant improvements — because that’s what peer review is all about, separating the wheat from the chaff.
But it’s easy to get published in one of these predatory journals, no matter how bad your paper is. They will publish literal gibberish — this has been demonstrated repeatedly — as long as you pay them. But the real problem is that they publish so many papers that look like real science to the casual observer.
The pollution of science with non-science
All of this not-peer-reviewed research now constitutes a substantial percentage of the papers I have to wade through when I’m doing my job, trying to get to the truth about pain science. When I complain that there’s a lot of junky science out there, I don’t just mean that there’s some low quality science — which was true long before predatory journals existed — I mean that the scientific literature is severely polluted with actual non-science, with an insane number of papers that were published under entirely false pretenses, the fruit of fraud.
This isn’t just a “problem” for science—it’s a rapidly developing disaster that “wastes taxpayer money, chips away at scientific credibility, and muddies important research.”
I updated a featured article on PainScience.com with this rant. See: