- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
What are "predatory journals?" Entomologist Matan Shelomi defines them as those that "appear legitimate, but practice no peer review, no editing, not even a reality check."
Predatory journals are especially dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Shelomi, a Harvard graduate and UC Davis-trained entomologist who is now an assistant professor of entomology at the National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan.
He's right. And what he recently did showed why peer-reviewed articles are crucial in the realm of scientific literature.
Here's what occurred.
Being an avid Pokémon scholar and fan--and a foe of fake news--Shelomi wrote a fictitious research paper about how eating a bat-like Pokémon sparked the spread of COVID-19. A journal editor accepted it for publication (without peer-review) and it appeared online in open access.
For a time.
As Shelomi recounted in his Nov. 1 opinion piece, "Using Pokémon to Detect Scientific Misinformation," in The Scientist: “On March 18, 2020, the American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research published my paper claiming that eating a bat-like Pokémon sparked the spread of COVID-19. This paper, 'Cyllage City COVID-19 outbreak linked to Zubat consumption,' blames a fictional creature for an outbreak in a fictional city, cites fictional references (including one from author Bruce Wayne in Gotham Forensics Quarterly on using bats to fight crime), and is cowritten by fictional authors such as Pokémon's Nurse Joy and House, MD. Nonetheless, four days after submission, editor Catherine Nichols was ‘cheerful to inform' me via email that it had “received positive review comments” and was accepted for publication.”
The fake research article no longer appears online; staff removed it for nonpayment of fees.
Shelomi offers this advice: "How, then, to catch a predator, besides checking Beall's List? First, assume all journals or conferences that email you unsolicited submission invitations are predatory, especially if they are outside your field, cover overly broad subjects, promise rapid review, or flatter you with compliments such as 'eminent researcher.' Any journal with multiple email domains is predatory, as are absolutely all journals that list the worthless “Index Copernicus” number on their website."
"There are no shortcuts in science," he pointed out in The Scientist. "If you want to be taken seriously as an academic, do not give predatory journals your business, especially as institutes wise up to the problem and stop accepting such articles on CVs or applications. Although, if any institute wants to grant me an honorary degree in Pokémon Studies for my eminence in the field, I would cheerfully accept."
Did Shelomi get much reaction from his Pokémon project?
"I haven't had much reaction, honestly, though what little I had has all been very favorable," he told us. "I'm disappointed this doesn't get much traction among the Pokémon community, at least. I wrote the tell-all for The Scientist as a way to get more attention to the original articles. The predatory journals, of course, do not know or care about any negative press."
"I recently saw that an actual, legitimate, peer-reviewed journal had accepted (and eventually retracted) a paper saying COVID-19 is caused by earth's magnetic field, and that jade amulets can prevent it. Why do I bother sending fake papers to fraudulent journals when real journals are publishing such nonsense? And we should never forget that the modern anti-vaxxer movement started from a paper in The Lancet, then the top medical journal on earth.
"I suspect most scientists are unaware of what predatory journals are, especially in the developing world where quantity matters over quality regarding publish or perish. While research ethics courses were required when I was at UC Davis, I suspect most researchers worldwide go from undergrad to tenure without ever learning about the difference
between garbage journal and fake ones. If my Pokémon papers can be used to educate, then they are doing their jobs."
Shelomi says that "the cruel irony is that pseudoscience and conspiracy theory blogs are using my papers as an example of why science is not to be trusted, despite the fact that in it I explicitly call out anti-vaxxers and other anti-science people. This is the world we live in: good science gets ignored, garbage science gets published, and nonsense gets
promoted on the blogosphere by those saying "don't trust scientists."
"I will be the first to say that not everything written in IMRaD format (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) is trustworthy, but it's still going to be far more reliable than a 140-character tweet. People, including scientists, need to learn how to identify good sources and how to identify garbage, and 2020 being what it is I am not optimistic that we can teach them. I will certainly do my part in trying!"
Shelomi received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 2014, studying with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, and professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. He then received a National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral position at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. He is recognized as a top writer on Quora and is active on Twitter.
While at UC Davis, Shelomi co-authored "A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokémon," a paper published in the Annals of Improbable Research (August 2012), a tongue-in-cheek journal meant to make people laugh and then think. (See feature story). Basically, it was "a very real phylogeny of the very fake Pokémon creatures," as he described it. "This paper represents the first attempt to create a quantitative phylogeny of the Pokémon, using the underlying assumption that Pokémon evolved via natural selection independently from the animals and plants more familiar to Western zoologists. The goal was to apply modern evolutionary theory and techniques to a field previously limited to pre-Darwinian methods of inquiry."
And, as Matan Shelomi acknowledged in The Scientist, he writes "fake articles under the pseudonym Mattan Schlomi."
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Just a hoax. A fear-mongering hoax.
A so-called Facebook "public service announcement" on Aug. 21 that warned of a “new deadly spider species” spreading across the United States went viral, but it was all fake news. The images that the South Carolina man posted are of a woodlouse spider, Dysderca crocata, and it's neither new nor deadly to humans.
Unfortunately, many gullible people--probably many who cringe at the very sight of a spider!--believed the hoax. And even more unfortunately, the post went viral.
The South Carolina resident posted the "public service announcement" in all caps:
“THE SPIDER FROM HELL. FIVE PEOPLE HAVE DIED THIS WEEK DUE TO THE BITE OF THIS DEADLY SPIDER .THIS SPIDER WAS FIRST SEEN IN SOUTH CAROLINA IN JULY SINCE THEN IT HAS CAUSED DEATHS IN WEST VIRGINIA ,TENNESSEE AND MISSISSIPPI. ONE BITE FROM THIS SPIDER IS DEADLY. US GOVERNMENT WORKING ON AN ANTI VENOM AT THIS TIME PLEASE MAKE YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS AWARE.”
“This beast, Dysderca crocata, has been in most of North America for decades,” Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, told us. “That includes California. It occurs mostly around buildings, especially if there is a mulched garden where its primary prey, isopods (rolypolies, pillbugs), live. I've had it at my place for years, but the number of pillbugs went way down during the drought and I haven't seen the spider lately."
“Needless to say, its bite is not lethal," Shapiro pointed out. "It has very large chelicerae and displays them menacingly if annoyed. According to the literature, bites (really rare) cause brief pain and occasionally local dermatitis, nothing more.”
Snopes.com, the fact-checking site, declared it a hoax on Aug. 21, a day later, but not before the damage was done. Today the Entomological Society of America (ESA) tweeted “FACT CHECK: Did a 'New Deadly Spider' Species Kill Several People in the U.S. in the Summer of 2018?” ESA answered the question succinctly: “Spoiler alert: No, it did not.”
No. It. Did. Not.
Snopes wrote: “Invasive and exotic animals have long been common subjects of scarelore, and messages alerting readers to the supposed threat posed by some new or previously unheard-of species often spread like wildfire across message boards, social networks and email inboxes. These posts typically take the form of a 'public service announcement' and are shared in good faith, and without hesitation, by people who sincerely wish to alert their friends and loved ones to an unfamiliar threat. For these reasons, the 'dangerous animal alert' is also a frequent source of misinformation, deliberate scare-mongering, or even downright trolling.”
It's a good idea to question these kinds of Facebook posts (note: where are you, Facebook monitors?)
Wikipedia informs us that "The woodlouse spider, Dysdera crocata, is a species of spider that preys primarily upon woodlice. Other common names refer to variations on the common name of its prey, including woodlouse hunter, sowbug hunter, sowbug killer, pillbug hunter and slater spider."
"Female specimens are 11–15 mm (0.43–0.59 in) long, while males are 9–10 mm (0.35–0.39 in).They have six eyes, a dark-red cephalothorax and legs, and a shiny (sometimes very shiny) yellow-brown abdomen. Notably, they have disproportionately large chelicerae for a spider of this size."
Native to the Mediterranean area, the woodlouse spider is found throughout much of the world, including North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It's found "under logs, rocks, bricks, and in leaf litter in warm places, often close to woodlice," Wikipedia relates. "They have also been found in houses. They spend the day in a silken retreat made to enclose crevices in, generally, partially decayed wood, but sometimes construct tent-like structures in indents of various large rocks. Woodlouse spiders hunt at night and do not spin webs."
There. You. Have. It.
"Too weird," commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, who fields lots of questions about insects and arachnids. "Funny that they picked this spider. Its ferocious looking but tiny and probably couldn't bite you even if it wanted to."
Sadly, Arachnophobia, or the extreme or rational fear of spiders, is very real--unlike the disturbing hoaxes that keep popping up on the Internet.