Academic Publishing Blog Guest post

Predatory authors, by Wolfgang Dreybrodt

"Publishing in natural sciences proceeds under structures similar to the mafia. Professors exploit the creativity of their subordinates. Predatory authorship increases the number of authors. This leads to a loss of scientific quality and destroys trust in science."

We all know of predatory publishing (where scientists submit dodgy papers to fake journals), and many are also aware of predatory conferences (where scientists travel to fake conferences at fancy locations, sometimes to pick up a fake award). But what the German geologist Wolfgang Dreybrodt, emeritus professor at the University of Bremen, wishes to talk about, is predatory authors, where undeserving scientists impose themselves as coauthors on other people’s papers. All of these predatory activities serve the purpose of padding one’s CV, and the higher you rank, the more freedom you get to engage in predatory activities.

Predatory authorships is a quite pervasive phenomenon, since probably every publishing academic can name some of their coauthors who never contributed anything of value to their paper. Also I blogged about it in the early days of For Better Science. In a smallish sample of ~200, over 80% voted “Yes” to the question “Did you ever add authors to your paper, who contributed little or nothing scientifically, for “political” or strategical reasons only?”

Dreybrodt previously slammed his own rector and former DFG Vice-President Bernd Scholz-Reiter, and compared him to a money forger in a newspaper interview. Scholz-Reiter namely has been caught on padding his CV with papers in predatory journals. Published as conference reports from notorious predatory scamferences, where Scholz-Reiter’s colleagues relaxed at fancy Mediterranean locations, financed by public money. Self-plagiarised papers, copy-pasted under same title, and occasionally even with different authors. For the purpose of rectorship application and DFG progress reports, to claim even more funding money and a bigger salary for Scholz-Reiter. The university and the DFG could not care less, which makes Dreybrodt very angry.

Dreybrodt now has enough of predatory authorships.

This cartoon was incidentally plagiarised by Doncho Donev, expert in publication ethics.

You can read about the scientist Dreybrodt in this interview he did in 2011 in Acta carsologica. His photo reproduced below was also published there.


Predatory Authors

By Wolfgang Dreybrodt

Publishing in natural sciences proceeds under structures similar to the mafia. Professors exploit the creativity of their subordinates. Predatory authorship increases the number of authors. This leads to a loss of scientific quality and destroys trust in science.

Introduction

After having written the draft of a publication, young scientists often find that the final version approved by their supervisor includes co-authors who have contributed little or almost nothing to the work. This is frustrating, because it diminishes the value of their work. But it also reduces their responsibility for the scientific content. Many young scientists are under great time pressure and higher-ranking co-authors force them to publish or perish. This affects the scientific care and the validity of the results. In the long run, confidence in science is at risk.

Many co-authors use their position in the academic power structure to put their name on the work of young researchers without significant own scientific contribution. These predator-authors exploit the creativity of young scientists for their purposes.

Worldwide, the number of authors per publication is constantly increasing. Today, the average number of authors in geosciences is 9, in environmental sciences 6, in medicine 11 and in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology 17, averaged from 2010 to 2016 (Berliner Zeitung, July 10, 2017). In the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), January 1, 1965 edition, 14% of the papers had one author, 43% two authors, 25% three authors and 18% more than three authors. In the edition of December 31, 2011, the corresponding figures were 0, 14, 25 and 61%. (Wyat P.J., Physics Today, 2012, 65, 9). Similar numbers can be found for other leading journals such as Nature and Science. This shows a dramatic change with profound consequences for the quality and reliability of science.

The German Research Foundation (DFG) states:

“Authors of an original scientific publication shall be all those, and only those, who have made significant contributions to the conception of studies or experiments, to the generation, analysis and interpretation of the data, and to preparing the manuscript, and who have consented to its publication, thereby assuming responsibility for it”

An almost identical statement is found in Publishing Ethics by Elsevier:

Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study.  All those who have made substantial contributions should be listed as co-authors. Where there are others who have participated in certain substantive aspects of the paper (e.g. language editing or medical writing), they should be recognised in the acknowledgements section.”

In 2019 DFG has adapted their code of conduct to present reality. It reads now:

An author is an individual who has made a genuine, identifiable contribution to the content of a research publication of text, data or software. All authors agree on the final version of the work to be published. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, they share responsibility for the publication.” 

Present reality

The reference to interdisciplinarity, often used to explain multi-authorship, is rarely correct. Most of the publications result from dissertation projects, usually funded by third-party. The doctoral supervisor is rightly the last author. The other co-authors are often members of the doctoral supervisor’s social network. One meets at conferences, talks about work, someone has a comment and is proposed by the supervisor as a co-author, which of course works mutually. Or there are coauthors whose technicians without knowledge of the scientific background carry out routine measurements on samples created by doctoral students, but nevertheless the lab rule is: No measurements without co-authorship. Gerhard Fröhlich offered other examples, in (Fröhlich, G., 2006: Plagiarism and unethical authorship. Information – Wissenschaft & Praxis, 57 (2) , 81-89):

Others simply swap scientific goods:” fetal cells only against the contractually fixed assurance that they should be listed as co-authors for every publication that arises from the evaluation of this valuable cell material.”

Or:

Important bacteria, viruses and cell cultures are shared – but often with the contractual obligation to be named as co-author on every publication that appears on the basis of those cultures. “

Such power games lead to authorships without real scientific contribution. This is known to the DFG and is tolerated. There are many ways to abuse the power in the scientific environment to obtain co-authorship. How else can the Rector of the University of Bremen and former Vice President of the DFG, Bernd Scholz-Reiter, co-author more than 600 publications in 10 years? There are clues.

Publications are the cash in science today. A scientific career is hardly possible without a sufficient number of publications in high ranking journals that are frequently cited increasing the h-index. Multiple-authorships lead to citation cartels that increase the h-index and render it absurd. Nevertheless, the h-index is an important criterion in obtaining third-party funding, as well as in decisions on academic careers and positions. As in any monetary system, there are counterfeiters who, as predatory authors, for their own benefit exploit the creativity of scientists under their control. To make it clear, not every co-author is a forger, but many are. They hide among the honest ones and it is difficult to prove anything to them. The guidelines of the DFG were very ambiguous but the intention to pursue violations was very weak. It collapsed in August 2019 when the new code of conduct was announced. This way one understands that the former vice president of the DFG has published more than 620 papers in 10 years. The DFG knew, but was not reacting.

The role of the DFG

According to the statutes of the German Research Foundation (DFG): “The DFG supports projects from all areas of science and the humanities and especially promotes interdisciplinary cooperation among researchers.” The DFG manages three billion Euros of public funds from the federal and state governments. A large part of the research at universities is financed with this money such that the universities depend on financing by the DFG.

University scientists can apply for funding for their research projects. The success of a project in the final report is also measured by the number of peer-reviewed publications in the course of the three-year project. Because the success of previous projects will play a key role in future professors’ applications, many professors now expect their doctoral students to publish several papers. These are then recognized in a commented compilation as a cumulative dissertation to achieve the doctoral degree. Since this work has to be completed in about three years, the scientific quality suffers. For example, one such cumulative dissertation at Heidelberg University is based on three publications, the first with 10 authors, the second with 6 and the third with 12.

The pressure exerted on scientists funded by the external grant money leads to a flood of publications with many authors. This overwhelms the peer review system and jeopardizes trust in science. There is also the danger that really good articles will get lost in the noise of mediocre work.
Professor Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, asked “to halve the number of scientific publications over the next ten years in order to increase the quality accordingly.” The peer review system is “on the verge of collapse worldwide because it can no longer adequately process the abundance of publications“, she said (DHV newsletter 8/2018).

Predatory authorship, which exploits the creativity of young doctoral students, is encouraged by a certain form DFG grant applicants must fill out: “Scientists with whom there is a specific agreement on cooperation for this project”. These partners often claim co-authorship without significant contribution; an official collaboration grants them this privilege.

The role of professors and PhD students

Professors have been under considerable pressure since third-party fundraising has become one of their most important duties that affect their reputation and income. To an increasing degree they are becoming science managers at the expense of their own research. The amount of money obtained from external funding and the number of citations (h-index) is essential for success. This number increases due to multiple-authorship papers. No wonder that citation and authorship cartels are formed.

Featuring 10 times as a co-author with little contribution to a paper gets a lot more citations than being a co-author with significant input together with one’s doctoral student. One cites each other within the networks of co-authors. Therefore, the number of citations in the publications explodes. 60 citations are now almost common, although far fewer citations are needed to understand the work. It is obvious that the rules of the DFG and the behaviour of the professors, but also that of the early career scientists reinforce each other. This is not surprising, since many of the sinners sit on the committees of the DFG. The practice of multi-authorship is not new. Many of the young investigators consider this as normal. They even reject any criticism of it. In this way, misconduct is inherited across generations.

The doctoral student is the weakest link in the system. PhD graduates who dare to protest are at the mercy of their supervisor who evaluates their thesis and extends their contract and writes their recommendation letters. Support for their graduate project can be withdrawn or discontinued in various ways. This power structure is clear to the student at all times.

At poster sessions during the EGU (European Geosciences Union) international conference in Vienna in 2016 and 2017, I asked doctoral students about their co-authors and their contributions. Many said that most of their co-authors contributed little. They did not appreciate having these additional names on their poster. They thought that their own contribution was downgraded this way, “but this is just the way; there is nothing one can do about it.” Some even did not know the co-authors listed on their poster. Others, however, believed that the name of some well-known scientist as co-author of their work would facilitate its publication and favour their career.

The doctoral student is under massive constraints. External funding providers and their own university expect publications to be delivered in the course of the PhD project. It is the pressure of the “Publish or Perish” system. Consequently scientific care is often relaxed. Measurements that should actually be repeated are treated “creatively”. New ideas that support the results are not pursued further because it might take too much time. Facts that put experimental results in question are kept secret. Publications primarily serve as career vehicle and only secondly, to progress the scientific knowledge, because often “the mere length of the publication list can have a strong influence on the success or failure in appointment procedures”, (Forschung und Lehre. 5, 24, 2019). None of this serves scientific ethics.

The role of scholarly journals

The world’s largest publisher is Elsevier with annual sales in 2017 of 2.7 billion Euros and a return on sales of 37 percent. (DIE ZEIT No. 31/2018, July 26, 2018). 1.6 million articles were submitted in 2017. 30 percent of these were published in 2500 journals, many of them with an excellent reputation (DIE ZEIT No. 31/2018, July 26, 2018). This rigid review system gives Elsevier journals a high reputation and therefore a competitive advantage.

Elsevier subscription journals usually do not charge the authors any publication fees, but insist on transfer of the copyright. The reviewers work out of a commitment to scientific principles without any honorary. Elsevier derives its profits from excessive demands on libraries. Robert Darnton director of Harvard University Library told The Guardian:

We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labor at outrageous prices.”

German libraries that no longer wanted to pay these high costs were banned since 2018 from accessing Elsevier publications on the internet. If you want to download an article from the Internet, you have to pay about $30. However, authors can also make their work open access for a fee of between $500 and almost $6000, depending on the journal. There is no question that a large number of publications, which are getting longer and longer, are in the economic interest of the publisher. As the number of co-authors increases, so does the number of citations and thus the impact factor, a quality indicator of the journal. No support can therefore be expected from the publishers.

In the peer review process, at least two peers are proposed by the journal editors as experts in the subject area to independently and anonymously assess the quality of the work. They recommend whether the paper should be rejected, published or if changes are necessary. This voluntary work takes a lot of time. Given the complexity and diversity of today’s topics, an expert is rarely able to understand all the details of the work. Rather, peer reviewers pay attention to the general impression of the paper. They rely on the honesty of the authors. The reviewers can only check the presented data for consistency, but they can hardly detect any data manipulation.

In many papers, lack of scientific depth is masked by lengthy complex-sounding wording, to confuse the readers. Consequently, the manuscripts become longer and less legible. The peer review system is likely to fail in such cases. The question of whether all authors really contributed significantly is taboo in the reviewer reports. In addition, many peer reviewers themselves also maintain dubious co-authorship practices.

The claim of the DFG and others that a paper which went through this peer review procedure is beyond doubt is questionable. One PhD student, to whom I pointed out a mistake in his paper, said: “Maybe the reviewers will say something about the problem, and I’ll include this in the next round.” The reviewers didn’t notice. The work was published. This way, responsibility has been shifted to the reviewers.  

The DFG acts in a similar way. For example, one expert’s answer to controversial final reports on the same project, in which one questioned the results, was: “Nevertheless, I would believe both correspondents because the results have been or will be published in international peer-reviewed journals.”

Scholz-Reiter, rector of the University of Bremen and former vice-president of the DFG justifies the quality of his 31 papers published by the predator WSEAS:

The publisher which published this publication is now suspected of being a predatory publisher. The article is based on a third-party funded research project. It is part of the final project report, which was checked by anonymous reviewers. They expressed no criticism of the publication.” 

When asked about this statement by the blogger Leonid Schneider, the DFG did not want to comment.

In summary, the peer review system offers some protection against low-level publications. However, it cannot warrant the validity of the findings presented in publications. Ultimately, the responsibility remains with the authors. In the case of multi-author work, it will be difficult to find a responsible person because everyone can hide behind everyone else. Only an expert can spot errors. But will the journal listen to this concerned reader? Unlikely with today’s publishing industry.

The peer review procedure, as offered by the European Geosciences Union and the publishing house Copernicus Publications, could offer a way out. Here a submitted manuscript is put online in open access. Anyone can comment on it openly. Two anonymous peers examine the work. The submitted work, the comments, the reviews, the answers of the authors and the revised manuscript remain on the Internet regardless whether the final manuscript was rejected or accepted. This ensures transparency, which Elsevier and many commercial publishers do not support.

Outlook

Something has changed fundamentally over the past 20 years. Scientific work has become mass production of “papers”. It is important that they are published. For collective writers, care and quality however are often of secondary importance.

The problem has been known for a long time and there are many publications on it. The DFG, the Max Planck Society and many universities have issued guidelines for ensuring “good scientific practice” in 2013 (DFG, 2013: Memorandum “Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice) and an adaption in 2019.

Their ambiguous formulations show which interests have been involved. On the outside, one pretends compliance with good scientific practice, but this is not enforced on the inside. The establishment of the ombudsman for mediation in conflicts of authorship and the option of dealing with higher committees in the event of misconduct is often ineffective. At universities and within the DFG, they come into conflict of interests because the consequent detection of scientific misconduct could damage the reputation of their own institution.

If the paradigm of scientific work has changed, then that must be discussed. The taxpayer is entitled to this. The consequences for the reliability of science must then also be discussed and new ethical behaviour must be developed. The DFG, as the largest provider of third-party funding from public funds of 3.2 billion Euros in 2017, has a duty here. Truthfulness is the highest principle in science. The DFG must also be committed to this. 

There may be some hope. Recently some prominent leaders in the Max Planck Society and the DFG criticized the prevailing funding politics. Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society said (Physik Journal 18 (2019) No. 10):

“If mainly quantitative indicators, such as the number of scientific publications in certain journals, measure performance, or when the amount of third-party funds obtained decides about success and career in the scientific community, this will prevent free research to less prominent but seminal and pioneering work.”

and in Ausblick: Karriere in der Wissenschaft, 1/20, published by NRW Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts:

“for example, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Stefan Hell. He was not invited to a university for years because the paper record was missing. We need the Hells of this world —— But they have no chance in the citation reputation business.”

Former DFG president Peter Strohschneider and coauthors wrote in FAZ:

“Conformity and publication pressures mean that the quality of research and risk for pioneering topics taken by researchers is declining. There is enormous publication pressure in the science system, which has a negative impact on the publication strategy of young scientists.”

This should trigger a public discussion, but so far nothing has happened. 

Everybody knows, but (almost) nobody acts; Omertà, or the dogs bark but the caravan goes on.


21 comments on “Predatory authors, by Wolfgang Dreybrodt

  1. PREPRINTS AND PUBMED COMMONS

    Dr. Dreybrodt’s suggested remedy is as follows: “The peer review procedure, as offered by the European Geosciences Union and the publishing house Copernicus Publications, could offer a way out. Here a submitted manuscript is put online in open access. Anyone can comment on it openly. Two anonymous peers examine the work. The submitted work, the comments, the reviews, the answers of the authors and the revised manuscript remain on the Internet regardless whether the final manuscript was rejected or accepted.”

    However, it is not clear how this differs from submitting open access preprint publications to arXiv or bioRxiv and then receiving open or private comments from anyone who chooses. Whether the final formal publications are rejected or accepted, the preprint versions (sometimes with multiple revisions) remain on the internet and are citable in the literature.

    In essence this is “post-publication review” since a preprint publication is a publication (i.e. it is made pubic). Post-publication review can be performed both on preprint publications and final formal publications. The importance of this is that when asked by an editor to conduct a formal review, a peer-reviewer can, as part of his/her reviewing process, consult the already existing reviews, not only of the paper in question, but also of the citations in that paper.

    The paper under review will have a reference list. Those references that the reviewer may be uncertain about, can first be quickly checked by viewing the corresponding PubMed abstract. If more information is needed, many PubMed abstracts provide quick access to the cited paper. For a five year period (2013 to 2018) it was also possible to access non-anonymous post-publication reviews (often by highly knowledgeable people in the field). These reviews were a mere click away in what was known as PubMed Commons. This however was, according to the NCBI, an “experiment,” and furthermore it was an experiment that had been deemed, somehow, to have failed!

    An approximate equivalent to PubMed Commons today is provided by PubPeer, but this is anonymous, does not impose any qualification requirement in order to comment, and is not easily accessible as part of the reviewing process.

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  2. This will change in my opinion. If not, in 5-10 years there will be thousands of young rising stars who know only 1-2 two bench-side techniques in stem cell biology, cloning and cancer research. The rest of biology will be set back to stone age. The third party funding dependence of research has already led to the extinction of many areas of research and has over-funded some areas which aim to cure Relevant Diseases in 3 Easy Steps. But they have no use in the long term advancement of science. And they do not cure the Relevant Diseases neither.

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  3. Practical Question: I am in the process of submitting a manuscript where undergraduate students did a part of the experiments that are presented in the manuscript. I told them exactly what to do, and they used their hands to help me carry out the experiment. They did not plan the experiment at all, did not even understand the science behind it, just operating in a technical facility. Should these undergraduates be authors on this submission?

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    • But I think the problem is not that a PI is generously acknowledges the work of technicians and undergraduates by authorship in articles. It becomes a problem when the PI adds “Godfathers” and family members to the author list. PI’s husband/wife/child, directors of powerful institutes and committees appear as authors for such, merely political reasons. That is a problem And, the practice can fire back. Imagine that you have added big names to your author list, and later you issue a correction or retract the paper. That will most likely turn your potent friends into your worst nightmare 🙂

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    • May depend on the field and standards of the journal/institution, but I’d probably do it. It’s one of the points where my intuition does not really agree with the table provided by Sylvain (which is interesting and I’d love to discuss it more both with junior and senior researchers).

      I don’t really see around me what the main post says, that adding authors dilutes contributions in a way (still it’s that being first/last matters for 95% at least, the rest is not so important). Listing promising young students who did some actual work as middle authors does not harm anyone and it may benefit them and motivate them. Like Weiss, I’m a lot more allergic to bloating of senior authors, where people often can be without little contribution. The worst case was when I protested against an addition of co-author who didn’t do anything by a collaborator, and the collaborator explained that if we didn’t do that, he himself (who is a great researcher and person) would get in big trouble. What can you do…

      When thinking about authorship, I ask myself what the paper would have looked like if the given person was retrospectively deleted and no compensation of the missing work happened. Would the paper miss 20 edits of language? Yes (i.e. bye to many senior authorships). On the other hand, technical work would be still considered authorship-worthy, and so could be, at least in some cases, provision of animals. Say there is an established model of an animal with a healed internal injury – preparing such animals for colleagues can be a lot of work and as it’s not easy to pay colleagues directly with money, why not to add them as co-authors, at least? Training in highly specialised procedures might count too. I was trained by a postdoc colleague in a fairly complicated surgical technique – he spent a month of his time on that, and my results subsequently acquired led to a nice paper. It would feel strange to not put him as a co-author.

      And ultimately, I wish there was a separate type of contribution to acknowledge organisational contributions (such as funding acquisition) – I agree it’s not a “research contribution”, but still it’s an important thing and the PI should be rewarded in some visible way even when he or she otherwise “only” edits the text (I know, acknowledgments, but who takes these seriously).

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  4. Those who publish in predatory journals become their biggest defenders, making the problem worse. Researchers and academic librarians in Germany have promoted open-access with a cult-like fervor. Now the country’s research output is questionable and suspect.

    Any researcher, especially a so-called rector who makes a comment like “It is part of the final project report, which was checked by anonymous reviewers. They expressed no criticism of the publication” is completely foolish or mendacious. There was no criticism because there was no real peer review.

    If you publish 31 articles in the journals of a known predatory publisher, you’re not fooling anyone.

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  5. I agree with much of what is written here and am with the 80% who have seen co-authors added for political reasons. Even though I agree there is a problem, I do not agree that long author lists are always problematic: science does become more interdisciplinary and I have seen and authored papers with more than 10 deserving authors, who all contributed a specific contribution (e.g. a non-standard measurement and its interpretation).

    The key for undeserving authorship is obviously the power structure of the research enterprise: the treshold for inclusion as co-author becomes (much) lower the higher one is up the food chain. In my experience, measures to limit authorship to the truly deserving inevitably fail and are sometimes used against interns, students, postdocs and permadocs, but fail to address the bosses. As I am getting more established, I occasionally have to decline co-authorships when I feel I did not do enough… (or almost nothing at all, but co-authorship is offered anyway). It is clear that some people do not decline such opportunities… and others actively pursue them.

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  6. NMH, tricky question with the undergraduate students or interns…

    In my field at least, there is always some tinkering involved to get things to work and very rarely somebody just provides hands without brains. This, combined with the fact that the power-imbalance is not in their favour, motivates me to err on the side of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Particularly so if the student showed interest and understanding of what and why they were doing things, even if perhaps not of the overall project/study.

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    • I pretty much agree with this statement. In my case, another consideration is that most of the undergrads I have want to go to med school and an authorship, and a letter from my boss (an MD), makes a big difference in their application, whether I like it or not. If this helps them get into med school, so they are less likely to consider a career in research (which IMO is a bad choice for an intelligent mind), I’m all for it.

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    • Pseudonameus originalsa

      Magma, I agree that this is a tricky question and I think journals need to reconsider their authorship requirements.

      Like NMH states, undergraduates need this authorship line on their CV for their future careers. Additionally, I believe that technicians should be credited for their work. I would like to see journals open up their authorship requirements to include these people that deserve recognition for their work. How difficult is it to place an asterisk by someone’s name and say, “This author contributed data to this manuscript under the direction of senior authors”? Some journals are already asking for author contributions to be detailed.

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      • Sylvain B.

        I would endorse without any restriction something like a “list of contributors”, just below the list of authors, or as a footnote to the title. After all, most of modern science is done by contributors, while only a few people are able to write an article (this is by no way disrespectful towards those who are poorly skilled in the art of writing interesting papers; I’m probably one of them). Following the Cambridge dictionary, an “author” is “the writer of a book, article, play, etc.”, while a “contributor” is “a person who contributes something, especially money, in order to provide or achieve something together with other people”.

        Unfortunately, it just will not work: almost ALL researchers will see themselves as authors AND contributors.

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  7. Stephan Labude (a pseudonym)

    Reading this hurts me a lot. I was a research assistant and a lecturer at the University of Bremen for more than 10 years. At the end of the last year (on Christmas Eve, to be exact) I’ve reported my Ph.D. supervisor, the chancellor and the academic dean because of coercion (“Nötigung durch Amtsträger” in German, §240 Abs. 4 Satz 2 Nr. 2 StGB).

    It’s a complicated story but essentially it’s about work without an employment contract. I guess I’m the reason Mr. Mehrtens tried to step back: My story isn’t about predatory authorship or sexual harassment, it’s about financially motivated abuse of power, i.e. about possible corruption. There was some predatory authorship, which wasn’t the most burdening problem for me, but that’s just because I only had limited opportunity to do research at all. I was a traditional employee and my Ph.D. supervisor was also my immediate superior, so I had to fear to loose everything because of saying no to tasks benefitting him directly. My livelihood and my career prospects were at stake for such a long time and the stress almost killed me. I’ve actually lost full hearing on my left ear because of it and I was diagnosed with PTSD.

    The University of Bremen is a public university and its professors are German civil servants, so they have perfectly safe jobs, but in the same time they don’t offer proper protection for whistleblowers on limited contracts, especially when you haven’t finished your Ph.D. After having reported his supervisor because of possible fraud, a colleague had to fight for two years for the grading of his Ph.D. thesis and passed just barely. An administrative court called the administrative process once “chicanery” (“Schikane” in German) because a bunch of professors wanted to impede a Ph.D. thesis for political reasons. So it’s basically some kind of lottery: You can be lucky, have a fair mentor and be awarded scientific opportunities. But when your supervisor plays foul (e.g. does only non-scientific stuff like remunerated “expert opinions” for political parties), you’re the only one bearing the consequences and there’s a lot of gaslighting and victim-blaming, especially coming from “colleagues” in admin and HR.

    It’s such an awful place to work for those with scientific ambition (the chancellor calls the researchers and lecturers “legal risks”, because they can sue for checking the lawfulness of their temporary employment, there isn’t an ombudsman for Ph.D. students, only counselling, labor laws don’t apply because of part-time contracts without time tracking, there’s no reliable support for your own qualification when you’re an employee instead of a scholarship holder, there are no tailored courses on offer for employees to acquire specific scientific skills in your field, only very general courses like “How to manage your manager” and the “Leaving Academia”-stuff , you can’t trust admin because they see you as a “legal risk” and with short-term contracts you’ve got to fear to loose your job on short notice all the time). I can only caution international graduates, because they can loose their permit of residence with their job which makes them even more vulnerable. And at the University of Bremen, with its acceptance of steep power disparities, it’s better not to be vulnerable at all (i.e. be a parent, be disabled, …).

    The main reason for this is Mr. Scholz-Reiter, who is some kind of a reactionary. The University of Bremen isn’t an old-school university with chairs (“Lehrstühle”) and formally it has got a rector instead of a president. But Mr. Scholz-Reiter cumulated power and attempts to be some kind of an sun king. He even employed someone (full time and unlimited term, of course …) to prepare him for representative tasks. When he was an active professor he accepted more than 40 Ph.D. candidates simultaneously, so proper supervision wasn’t even possible anymore, but because of the “Hochschullehrermehrheit” and the prospect of generours performance bonuses for professors he was elected nonetheless.

    In Germany post-graduate students employed by the universities are seen as “equipment” (“Ausstattung”) and are treated by full professors accordingly: You aren’t an actual person anymore but rather something a full professor is entitled to because of his status. You’re prompted to be grateful all the time, just because they allow you to work in their vicinity. My Ph.D. supervisor has literally no methodological skills to teach to you and like Donald Trump he doesn’t read but you ought to be happy to be allowed to work with him just because he is a professor at the University of Bremen – and the University was “excellent” for some time. Think of this awful, awful “Bayreuther Erklärung” (which was signed by Mr. Mehrtens as the chancellor of the University of Bremen): It’s not proper work that the university needs to fulfill its public mission, it’s “qualification” somehow diffusing into you just by doing the teaching etc. at the expense of your own scientific work. So it’s no surprise that the rector of the University of Bremen is the most prominent example of a (possible) “predatory author”, which is probably itself a very German concept. It’s ironic because professors like Rudolf Hickel have been in the local media, relating their own experiences with predatory authorship at “old-school” universities like Tübingen. Hickel called this practice “contemptuous” – but that label applies only when it’s happening to him and in Tübingen.

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  8. Bullshit Chloride

    In the last 5 years I published only 3 papers without predatory authors, the average number of p.a. being 4. Some of them need to pay a fee to a fishy private company to have their name added. It’s about 5000 USD.

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  9. Are there more info about WSEAS? on the basis of what i found with a google search, I vaguely understood that they organized a suspicious conference, but from their website it looks like they don’t impose fees on the authors of their journal papers. In which sense are they predatory?

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  10. Robert Smith

    I agree, this development is in the wrong direction. But there is more:

    Scientific work has become a kind of online show run. For example, Researchgate-Score. What does it really mean? It can become a kind of self-estimation building tool. Exaggerated uploading of posters and other non-peer-reviewed products. Academia.edu turns it into profit production tool; Scientists pay money for more information. There is always the question, may I upload my publication. The copyright is owned the journal, because I had to transfer it to the publisher. Another problem for young scientists is to recognize “fake” journals; serious appearing emails invite you to publications, conferences, etc.
    There are studies that show greatly increased psychological problems in PhD students. Another problem is the lack of a social network; we do not pay into pension insurance or unemployment insurance until we get older. I feel like I’m falling through every net. The preference for foreign postdocs also fits here. In Israel, a professor presented a postdoc position in Germany. When I asked, he said: Are you German? We are looking for foreigners. They are cheaper; otherwise we have to pay social security and health security contributions.
    I have been abroad for a long time and I would have liked to be closer to Europe again, I was frustrated by this experience.
    Another general problem is that it is almost impossible to find a long-term position. This turns us to nomads, who are easily exploited and partly are forced to research at the university without private life.
    When my PhD project ran out of money, I worked on 3 unsuccessful project proposals; a lot of lost time.
    I agree with you that problems in science are difficult to solve institutionally and that better tools should be set up here.
    For me it was arguing between project leaders. Dependency on an advisor is also problematic. In Israel there was a PhD student whose results have disproved previous results of his boss, this poor student is not allowed to publish his results. In Puerto Rico there were several students who started a new project because of problems with their boss. It took them years. There is also the problem of taking advantage of a PhD by an advisor, so one is asked to drive someone to the airport, or to help with building a house or moving to another one. This is ethically wrong. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.

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