Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series about those weird and wacky words scientists use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

ACADEMIC PAPER MILLS

A paper mill is a factory that produces paper.  It’s a perfectly legitimate business.  An academic paper mill is a business that, in an almost factory-like manner, cranks out fraudulent academic papers.

This term came up in my ongoing research about research.  Academic paper mills are a growing concern in the scientific community.  An extraordinary number of these paper mill papers have gone through the peer review process and been published in highly respected journals.

Distressingly, even when the origins of a paper mill paper are exposed, publishers do not always make that clear.  As this article from Nature explains:

Publishers almost never explicitly declare on retraction notices that a particular study is fraudulent or was created by a company to order, because it is difficult to prove.

Even so, that same article from Nature says that at least 370 published papers have been retracted since January of 2020 due to their suspected paper mill origins.  Another 45 have been flagged with “expressions of concern” by the journals that published them.  And since academic journals started cracking down on paper mill papers, it seems that some researchers have decided to voluntarily retract their own research “without stating the reason for retraction.”

Based on what I read in that Nature article, as well as in other articles like this one from Chemistry World, I get the sense that this is a bigger problem in some scientific fields than it is in others.  Fields like biomedical science, computer science, and engineering seem to be getting paper milled the hardest—in other words, fields where there’s the most money to be made and where researchers are under the most pressure to rack up publication credits.

For my own purposes as a science fiction writer who wants to do his research, I read a fair number of academic papers: mostly papers on astrobiology and planetary science.  I doubt I have to worry much about paper mill papers in those fields.  There are, however, other red flags I know to look out for.

6 responses »

  1. Kate Rauner says:

    Even good science depends on replicated studies, and I’ve read that journals don’t want to publish replications and scientists don’t get much credit for them. Everyone wants a stunning new breakthrough. But, to stick to retractions,

    “The most famous psychological studies are often wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. Textbooks need to catch up. ” https://www.vox.com/2018/6/13/17449118/stanford-prison-experiment-fraud-psychology-replication
    and

    Retraction Watch at https://retractionwatch.com/

    Eek!

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I imagine these paper mill papers would fall apart instantly as soon as somebody tried to replicate the research. From what I read, the fraudulent data is often copied and pasted from other papers.

      I remember reading an article about ways some academic journals are trying to incentivize more replication studies. The details were a lit too “inside baseball” for me to follow, but at least somebody is trying to address that issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh! It’s hard enough just dealing with the wide variances in quality even of papers legitimately written by actual researchers. Fake paper manufacturers seem like they just pour gasoline on the problem. Coupled with low quality journals that don’t adequately scrutinize their submissions, if a paper isn’t authored by a well know researcher, or endorsed by one, or published in a well known journal, it makes it hard to know what to trust.

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Indeed! I was reading about some of the red flags that might indicate something came from a paper mill, but it’s not exactly the kind of stuff I would be able to pick up on.

      My only solace is that paper mills seem to target big money fields like medicine and computer science, not the outer space topics I generally read about. So I don’t think I personally have to worry too much. But this is still a very frustrating thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Where there is a way to cheat, people find it. That’s why it’s so hard to trust facts anymore, because are they really facts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I think you’re right, unfortunately. Though I do think some facts deserve more suspicion and skepticism than others. Cheaters seem to gravitate toward money, and I think that’s why the big money fields of research are struggling with this problem more than others.

      Like

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