John Bohannon is to scientific publishing what Sacha Baron Cohen is to comedy — an insider who lives at the edge of propriety to point out the limitations of the status quo. The molecular biology PhD-turned journalist has helped expose serious problems with science publishing using a series of stings. In one, he was able to have more than 150 bogus articles accepted by rapacious journals that turned out not to peer review as advertised. In another, he published a paper that could only be described as lying with statistics, purporting to show that chocolate could help people lose weight.

Bohannon’s latest target is what may be an emerging and disturbing phenomenon in digital publishing: the hijacking of journal websites. Reporting in Science this week, Bohannon claims to have identified 24 cases in which hijackers, after waiting patiently for web registrations to expire, have recently taken over the web domains of scientific journals for unclear — but almost certainly not scholarly — aims. He also demonstrated how easy the practice is by taking over the site of a Croatian art journal and engaging in what’s known on the web as Rickrolling: redirecting visitors to the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (Bohannon says the journal didn’t mind the ruse because they were moving to a new address anyway.)

Bohannon’s bigger concern is that the new owners of these journal websites may masquerade as the real thing, racking up submission fees from unwitting researchers. So far, Bohannon has found only two hijacked sites that appear to still be accepting articles. One, called Ludus Vitalis, offers to publish papers for a $150 fee. Most of the rest are under construction, redirected to other sites, or used to advertise products such as “balding cures and payday loans,” he reports.

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It’s tempting to dismiss Bohannon’s latest gag as an irrelevant gimmick. Not everyone admires his methods. And in this case, after all, he acknowledges that he has no evidence that any unsuspecting scientists have fallen prey to the scam. But his exposé adds yet more evidence that scholarly publishing has captured the attention of some most unsavory characters.

Scholarly publishing has captured the attention of some most unsavory characters.

Two years ago, for example, this was the first paragraph of an eye-opening piece in The Economist: “Disguised as employees of a gas company, a team of policemen burst into a flat in Beijing on September 1st. Two suspects inside panicked and tossed a plastic bag full of money out of a 15th-floor window. Red hundred-yuan notes worth as much as $50,000 fluttered to the pavement below.”

The two bagmen weren’t part of a DVD pirating scheme, or an illegal gambling ring, though, as the magazine explained. They “were producing something more intellectual: fake scholarly articles which they sold to academics, and counterfeit versions of existing medical journals in which they sold publication slots.”

The existence of such article brokers may be shocking, but it really shouldn’t be all that surprising. The incentives to “publish or perish” are large everywhere, but in China it’s not unusual for scientists to earn bonuses for publishing papers in certain journals. Where there’s money, organized crime will figure out a way in.

And Bohannon says the deception he revealed this week represents another potential vulnerability for open access publishing, which he estimates is a $250 million-a-year business. Good intentions — the desire to allow everyone, not just the scientific elite, access to academic articles — gave rise to the open access business model, in which authors, instead of subscribers, pay the costs of publishing.

But that model has also given rise to what Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, calls “predatory publishers,” who exist simply to separate researchers desperate to climb the career ladder from their money. Like Bohannon, Beall has his critics, but there’s really no question that there exist unscrupulous — and that’s being kind — outfits that claim to perform rigorous review, but don’t. Some of them also engage in another form of journal hijacking, using nearly identical, or even completely identical, names as real journals to solicit submissions.

In a slight twist, one of the companies on Beall’s list of rogues, Marsland Press, offers the opportunity to publish in a journal called Nature and Science. That means a researcher could legitimately claim to have published “in Nature and Science,” making it sound, if you don’t look closely, as though he or she had landed a spot in two of the world’s most prestigious journals. Beall also claims to have found Russian firms that, like those described by The Economist in China, will write and place scientific papers for a fee.

Science — it’s all about the pure pursuit of knowledge, right? Watch out, researchers, the fraudsters may come for you next.

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