All Is Not Well in the World of Academic Scientific Enterprise

Maurie Markman, MD
Published: Saturday, Apr 28, 2018
Maurie Markman, MD
Maurie Markman, MD
It is quite difficult for those not directly involved in the complex world of academic medicine to understand fully the process of individual professional advancement and the values that organizations place on the components required for achieving and maintaining tenure. For that matter, the meaning of the term “tenure” is debated, and the implications of this status vary greatly among academic institutions.

In the not-so-distant past, the rewards associated with succeeding in the medically related academic community revolved around attaining personal salary support from internal and external sources; securing faculty member resources such as administrative, laboratory, and research staff; attaining the honor of membership in elite academic and scientific societies; and receiving prestigious awards. However, in certain academic spheres, today one must add the potential for highly lucrative patents and the opportunity to advise for-profit organizations, as well as to form companies based on the research efforts of the faculty member or a larger team. An intense debate between competing individuals and academic organizations related to patents for the paradigm-changing CRISPR gene-editing technology is 1 of many examples of this phenomenon.1 These connections also raise questions about whether some statements from highly regarded academics may represent objective science or merely financial self-interest.

Another concern regarding the academic scientific enterprise relates to seriously flawed or simply fraudulent research appearing in peer-reviewed literature.2 Of note, such events have been reported from even the most highly regarded institutions and organizations.3

Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated; for example, more than 400 research authors from China reportedly faced disciplinary action following an investigation of a scam revolving around peerreview processes.4 Some observers have speculated that a lack of scientific oversight and the remarkably intense pressure to publish have much to do with these scandals.5 It is unclear whether measures put in place to improve the situation are sufficient to successfully alter the current state of affairs.

Growth of Predatory Journals

A potentially relevant factor in the increasingly problematic arena of scientific publication is the proliferation of “predatory journals” for which business models could reasonably be classified as “academic publication fraud.”6,7 Not surprisingly, information regarding the goals and content of these publications is commonly available only online, frequently accompanied by glowing testimonials. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for an individual clinical or laboratory scientist or their supporting institutions to know if statements regarding the journal and the quality of its peer review are factual or fraudulent.8

With the availability of open-access online publication, many highly regarded medical journals now require investigators and institutions to be responsible for the publication costs, in contrast to the past standard, in which journal revenue came almost exclusively from subscribers and advertisers, not manuscript authors. Therefore, the fact that an online journal, whether legitimate or one of these predatory/ fraudulent publications, requires up-front payment is not necessarily helpful in distinguishing the 2 groups.

As a clinical investigator in the field of gynecologic malignancies, I have noted during the past year what appears to be a striking increase in email requests to participate in the clinical/scientific publication process involving journals that I did not know existed. In an attempt to quantify the numbers and overall content of the inquiries, I collected data regarding these solicitations from September 2017 to March 2018. A summary of this material provides an interesting but troubling window into the generation of scientific publications through this rapidly growing business model.

During those 7 months, I received approximately 18 emails per week requesting that I submit a manuscript (original publication, case report, editorial, commentary, or review article) to a “journal.” A single journal or company generated multiple requests—sometimes made weekly—often with identical language and sometimes with minor variations.

Approximately 45% of the solicitations were at least marginally relevant to my area of interest (eg, general cancer management, gynecologic malignancies, or cancer research methodology). Conversely, more than half were not even remotely relevant to my clinical and research background. Importantly, 85% of the emails overall came from journals or publishers that I had not known existed. Notably, in approximately 9% of inquiries, I was offered “editorial board membership” if I submitted a manuscript along with the required fees.

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