One of my pet peeves, of which there are many, is when a fake science paper is published by a low ranked journal and trumpeted as if it is Nobel Prize-worthy research. You can read about anti-vaccine fake science published in these journals from notorious anti-vaccine “researchers” like Shaw and Tomljenovic, Exley, and Shoenfeld.
One of my pet loves is Star Trek, all versions, all the time. In fact, I occasionally have secret conversations with my fellow Big Pharma shills about Star Trek, in which vaccines are never mentioned. I am a self-confessed Star Trek Nerd, who has watched almost every episode of Star Trek ST: TOS through the current Star Trek: Discovery (see Note 1).
So when I get the opportunity, falling into my lap, to combine Star Trek and the anti-vaccine nonsense, I am happier than a pregnant tribble. And when a fake science paper about the Star Trek universe gets accepted by low ranked predatory journals, ones that are beloved by pseudoscience adherents across the world, it’s what I live for.
Fake science and predatory journals
Before we get down to the meat of this article (this article is pure organic, GMO-free, vegan writing), we should discuss predatory journals, the bottom-feeders of the scientific publishing world. When we discuss the hierarchy of scientific research, we automatically discount anything published in a predatory journal.
What is a predatory publisher? According to the definitive Beall’s List of predatory publishers, they are an exploitative open-access publishing model that involves charging publication and other fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open access or not). Although predatory publishers occasionally use some sort of a peer-review process, it is not as robust or unbiased as you would find with higher quality journals.
Furthermore, these journals almost always have low journal impact factors, a measurement that provides a number that roughly indicates how many times an average article in a journal is cited per year. The journal Nature, for example, has an impact factor of 40.137, which means an average article is cited by other scientific articles an average of 40.137 times a year. A higher impact factor journal means that they usually, or exclusively, publish important scientific research that is the critical to scientific research and thinking. It’s not a perfect measurement, and occasionally, there are arguments about the importance of it. For example, highly specialized journals may have low impact factors because they are only cited in a very narrow field.
Generally, I consider an impact factor of above 10 to be the minimum for a general science journal, and above 3-5 for a specialized journal. Anything below 1.5 or so is worthless and should be dismissed out of hand, although there are exceptions to that rule. In many tenure discussions for science faculty, only articles published in greater than impact factor 10 journals count. That seems a bit rough.
I mentioned Beall’s list of predatory publishers above, which is maintained by Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado-Denver. If you notice the link to the list, it’s a web archive link rather than a live link. Why? Because of ongoing harassment against Beall, UC-Denver, and his colleagues resulted in his taking down the list in 2017. This is how it works – if science deniers don’t get their way, they harass people.
One of the articles written by the aforementioned Shaw and Tomljenovic, the discredited University of British Columbia anti-vaccine shills, was published in a predatory journal. Since the anti-vaccine world lacks any scientific evidence (or credibility) for any of their claims, they love “scientific articles” published in garbage journals.
In summary, low impact factor, predatory journals are generally dismissed by scientific researchers because the peer-review is weak. These journals are often abused by researchers whose data has been rejected by one or more of the respected journals, so they settle for these low-quality versions. In the academic community, publications such as these often cannot be used as evidence of qualification for tenure.
Here’s something to consider – if an amazing claim made by someone pushing a new scientific idea isn’t published in a good journal, is it because of some conspiracy against the research? Or is it because the research and analysis are so weak that it cannot support or reject the hypothesis? I’m guessing the latter.
Fake science and the Science sting
Mocking predatory journals by submitting fake science papers has been a fun activity for quite awhile. In 2013, John Bohannon wrote an article in the journal Science (impact factor 37.205) about submitting a fake science article to with an author with fake credentials to over 300 different predatory journals.
Here are some of the scientific data from the “sting” that Bohannon and Science perpetrated on these journals:
- They sent out various versions of the fake science paper to 304 journals.
- Of those, 157 of the journals accepted the paper.
- And 98 rejected it.
- Of the remaining 49 journals, 29 appeared to have folded or their websites were abandoned and 20 stated that they were still reviewing it. These two groups were excluded from the analysis.
So 255 papers were eventually acted on by the journals. Bohannon then showed that:
- Approximately 60% of the decisions about the paper happened without any sign of peer review. Of course, if the article was rejected, it just means that the journal’s editorial staff spotted obvious issues before sending it out for peer review. That’s how the system should work.
- Of the 106 journals that did perform a review, 70% were accepted for publication. In other words, despite peer review, they still accepted a garbage article.
- Only 36 of the 304 submissions generated comments pointing out the wide variety of the fake paper’s scientific problems. Despite that, 16 of those papers were accepted, despite the bad reviews.
And these predatory journals are the ones favored by anti-vaccine “researchers” – because those journals don’t care about quality, just about getting people to pay to publish. It’s part of the microeconomy of scientific research.
Fake science and Star Trek
So, finally, we’re at Star Trek, the final frontier of science fiction and, in this case, of fake science. A research biologist and long-time Star Trek fan, BioTrekkie (yes, it’s an anonymous name, because some of us just don’t trust science deniers to be civil). Following the experience of a similar effort to publish a fake science Star Wars article in predatory journals, BioTrekkie submitted an article to the American Research Journal of Biosciences (impact factor is so low, no one has reported it), and it was published. Yes, a fake science article about Star Trek was published (see Note 2).
BioTrekkie’s paper relies on Season 2, Episode 15 of Star Trek: Voyager, “Threshold.” During the episode, Lt Tom Paris builds an experimental shuttle that can go faster than warp 10 called transwarp, an imaginary speed barrier that Starfleet ships generally could not breach. Unfortunately, the test trip had some anomalies, when the experimental shuttle disappeared for a period of time. Paris returned with some genetic deterioration that was causing him to change into another animal.
Additionally, Paris becomes deranged and kidnaps Capt. Kathryn Janeway, and brings her along with him on the second trip with transwarp shuttle. After crossing the transwarp boundary again, the shuttle crashes on a planet after the pair evolved into some type of amphibious creature. The crew of the Voyager eventually find Paris and Janeway and find that they had mated and had had several children.
Of course, the scientists on the Voyager eventually figure out what happened and they are able to reverse the genetic damage, and they are returned to their original human form. Yeah, I know, this stretches the definition of scientific plausibility, but scientists do have imaginations, so we enjoy this genre of TV.
The fake science paper’s lead author is Lewis Zimmerman, BioTrekkie’s nom de plume I suppose. Seems legit right? Except Dr. Zimmerman is the name of a character on Voyager who invented the Emergency Medical Hologram, a computerized holographic physician who treats the crew members on Voyager. I’m seriously nerding out on all you readers, I know.
But for those of you who are true Star Trek Nerds, the author list is even more amusing. It includes Thomas Paris, Harry Kim, B’Elanna Torres, Kes Ocampa (her name is just Kes, a member of the Ocampa species), and Kathryn Janeway, all members of the Voyager crew. Yes, BioTrekkie pulled no stops in creating this paper.
The fake science paper essentially recounts the episode as a scientific experiment, using the word “celerity,” which means swiftness or speed. In the paper, Zimmerman, no, BioTrekkie, refer to theoretical maximum celerity as “warp 10.”
There are many more easter eggs in BioTrekkie article, like the Acknowledgements section:
We thank the UFP for financial support. The authors also thank B. Braga for helpful insights.
UFP is the United Federation of Planets, the utopian alliance of several like-minded planets, called “the Federation” in most of the shows. A B. Braga is Brannon Braga, the creative force behind Star Trek for about 15 years, although he has little to nothing to do with the current versions of Star Trek, probably as a result of convoluted licensing of the show’s intellectual property.
No matter how much fun I’ve had reading this article and writing about it, I need to underline a simple fact. Predatory journals accepted this fake article about Star Trek and published it. And if you search for Zimmerman and celerity, you’re going to find this article. I’m sure some pseudoscientist somewhere will use it as “peer-reviewed science” that proves that people can devolve into amphibians. Trust me, this will happen.
The same thing happens with our uncivil counterparts on the anti-vaccine side of the discussion. They have no science supporting their ridiculous claims, so they often will cherry pick fake science articles in predatory journals, and boldly go where no one should ever go.
Oh yeah, one more thing – Star Trek loves vaccines. A science fiction show understands science better than your typical anti-vaccine believer. Imagine that?
- In the ongoing war between Star Wars Geeks vs. Star Trek Nerds, I fall firmly on the side of Star Trek. That being said, I have never missed an opening day of a Star Wars movie ever. Even when I was in college, I skipped a cell biology class (probably when they explained how thiomersal destroys nerve cells) to see the original Star Wars way back in the age of dinosaurs. If you didn’t know there was a war between Star Wars Geeks and Star Trek Nerds, you’ve been paying too much attention to internet arguments about iOS vs Android, In-N-Out vs Five Guys, and football vs. soccer.
- It’s possible that after several blog posts mock this publisher, they’ll take down the article. It is preserved here in pdf form for the next generation of readers.
- Beall J. What I learned from predatory publishers. Biochem Med (Zagreb). 2017 Jun 15;27(2):273-278. doi: 10.11613/BM.2017.029. PubMed PMID: 28694718; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5493177.
- Bohannon J. Who’s afraid of peer review? Science. 2013 Oct 4;342(6154):60-5. doi: 10.1126/science.342.6154.60. PubMed PMID: 24092725.
- Hegedus Z, Czibula A, Kiss-Toth E. Tribbles: a family of kinase-like proteins with potent signaling regulatory function. Cell Signal. 2007 Feb;19(2):238-50. Epub 2006 Sep 11. Review. PubMed PMID: 16963228.