"Dr. Fraud" Sting Nabs Dozens of Phony Scientific Journals

iStock / iStock

Sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire. Scientist Anna O. Szust (“Anna, a Fraud” in Polish) convinced 48 journals to offer her a job despite her flimsy credentials—and the fact that she doesn’t exist. The real researchers behind the sting operation detailed their findings in the journal Nature.

Researchers who don’t publish their work risk losing tenure or funding, but slots in prestigious journals are incredibly competitive. This “publish or perish” mandate has thus fueled two big problems in academia: an emphasis on flashy, attention-grabbing findings; and an industry of predatory journals that take researchers’ money in exchange for the promise of publication.

A few years ago, a group of researchers in Poland became “increasingly disturbed” by the number of invitations they were getting to become editors at sketchy-sounding journals. “It became clear that the problem was huge,” they write, “yet had not been empirically examined.”

To get the lay of the predatory publishing landscape, the researchers invented a second-tier scientist with a fairly obvious fake name. Anna O. Szust had a variety of disparate scientific interests, fake university degrees, and had authored book chapters for publishers that don’t exist.

Even with all this fake fluff on her C.V., Dr. Fraud was still not qualified to edit a scientific journal—but that didn’t stop her from trying. The researchers wrote to 360 different publications—120 respected titles, 120 open-access, and 120 suspected predatory publishers—asking if they’d hire Dr. Fraud as an editor.

More than half of the journals didn't reply. Of those that did, all of the established journals turned her down. But eight open-access journals and 40 suspected phony journals appointed her an editor. Some were open about the fact that the position was meaningless; one journal responded, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as editor in chief for this journal with no responsibilities.” Another noted that Fraud’s cover letter said that she hoped to attain a degree she already claimed to have. But such a minor detail didn’t stop that journal from extending a job offer to her anyway.

Some of the journals “revealed themselves to be even more mercenary than we expected,” the authors wrote. They entreated Dr. Fraud to recruit more researchers who would pay to publish. Several offered her a cut of the profits.

After the experiment ended, the real researchers contacted the journals that had made job offers and told them all the truth. Six publications denied having ever accepted Dr. Fraud in the first place. One threatened legal action. At least 11 of the predatory titles are still using her name on their websites. Fraud even found herself listed as the editor in chief of a publication the researchers had never contacted.

“It is difficult to predict the future editorial career of Anna O. Szust,” the authors write, but “this rise of predatory journals threatens the quality of scholarship.”