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Fake studies in academic journals may be more common than previously thought

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're used to hearing a lot about promising new scientific studies, but fake studies are beginning to be a thing as well. Bernhard Sabel is the lead author of a new study about fake studies, as well as a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Magdeburg in Germany. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BERNHARD SABEL: Thank you for inviting. I'm happy to talk to your listeners.

RASCOE: So what is going on here? Like, why are all these fake papers ending up in academic journals? Like, how does that happen?

SABEL: Scientists are often judged by the number of papers they publish, and that is quite common practice everywhere around the world. And all this pressure creates anxiety and fear to not being promoted, to lose the job and so on. And so the best way to solve that, given they have no capacity to do the research, is, as if you're buying a T-shirt in the shop, you can buy a paper for it to be published in the scientific journal.

RASCOE: So how does that work? These are papers, like, with fake data, or these are papers that other people have done research for and then someone else is buying them, or is it all just completely fabricated?

SABEL: Well, all of the above. There is quite a variety in the kaleidoscope of ways of faking. You can now go online, and you can see a title advertised, sign up here. Pay this and that much for it. There are papers that have fake photos. They have fake text. I presume many are automatically produced by artificial intelligence. And there are agencies who are specializing in this business, which creates a lot of junk in the scientific literature at a scope that is just unbelievable.

RASCOE: Now, I know a lot of people, including journal publishers, are trying to develop tools to detect fake papers. How were you able, in doing your research, to determine which papers may be fake?

SABEL: Since I am a journal editor, I have seen a lot of manuscripts over many years. And so we developed a procedure to decide which papers should be red-flagged by going not only through my own journal, but also picking out 15,000 journal from the biomedical literature and then testing various indicators. And eventually we came up with indicators that seemed to be quite good as a red-flagging method, at least to induce further study of that particular paper. And these are very simple parameters. If you have a combination of a private email plus a hospital affiliation of the author plus one or two other indicators, then you can be certain that it's worth looking into more detail of that paper to possibly identify it as sure fake.

RASCOE: So what is the scope of this problem? Like, how many fake papers could, you know, we be dealing with here?

SABEL: Well, the goal of our study was really to estimate the scope rather than identifying a specific paper - this is fake. So when we're looking at the numbers of papers that are identified with our indicators, the percentage was in 2020 at 28% of all biomedical publications. That comes to over 300,000 in the biomedical field alone. Now, if you consider that all of science is maybe roughly double that, then you can sort of roughly estimate that there may be a half million fake papers published per year. And that is a shocking number.

RASCOE: So, and that's half a million out of about how many papers you would imagine are published in a year?

SABEL: Well, roughly 2 million papers are published in the scientific community. And if you use 28% of that, then you are at roughly 500,000. Maybe I'm wrong, and it's only half of that, or maybe it's more than that. In any case, whatever the number it is, the scope is shocking, and it is of a major concern. And in my opinion, it's probably the biggest science scam ever.

RASCOE: That's what I want to get to, because how high are the stakes here? Because if medical papers are being faked, could that affect medical care?

SABEL: Absolutely. If a drug is advertised that's not working or if side effects or risks are not communicated as they should be, absolutely, there could be lives lost. You know, this is just one example where fake science can have a massive impact on society and on the economy - never mind public health, which is a big field, but technology, computer science, agriculture, even studying the climate and so on. So it is a widespread challenge that I think we definitely have to address, and we can no longer ignore.

RASCOE: That's Bernhard Sabel, psychologist and neuroscientist at the Institute of Medical Psychology in the University of Magdeburg. Thank you so much for joining us.

SABEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.