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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.