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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

How I tried to get a paper that I own retracted: A journey and call to action against Prime Scholars

This is a Guest Post by Noah van Dongen

Right after the replication emergency in mental science, numerous clinicians have embraced rehearses that support the vigor and straightforwardness of the logical cycle, including preregistration, information sharing, code sharing, and enormous reproducibility studies
not Noah van Dongen, but somebody else (2022)

This is a true story about how I tried to get a paper that I own retracted. The copyright of the paper in question is attributed to me. Several requests and demands for removal were issued, but the journal has not yet fully complied. Of course, this might be due to the fact that I did not write the paper, the paper is an incoherent mess of academic gibberish, and Prime Scholars is the publisher of the journal. This post tells my story. It ends with a call to action against Prime Scholars and similar outfits.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Prime Scholar, this is what Wikipedia has to say about them:

As Bishop notes, some famous, though long dead, authors are counted among the people that publish in Prime Scholars’ journals.1

Apparently, I can now count myself among the illustrious company of Hesse, Bronte, and Whitman. For I too, without my knowledge and against my wishes, am now a scholar that published a word soup essay in a Prime Scholar journal.

The paper that I never wrote

I will not keep you in suspense any longer and tell you which journal and publication I am talking about. Acta Psychopathologica is one of the 56 journals owned by Prime Scholars. It claims to have a Journal Impact Factor of 2.15 (or 2.4 according to their about page) and has 524 citations reported on Google Scholar (or 447 according to Google Scholar). The journal has published 9 volumes, with some as many as 9 issues, and a total of 9 special issues. The academic trainwreck attributed to me was published in May 2022, as part of the fourth issue of volume 8. There are four other publications in this issue. For as far as I can tell, all of their authors are existing and living scientists. And all publications are of similar quality: syntactically it looks like English, but it reads like a bad acid trip (or the ramblings of a drunk philosopher).

And now, the word vomit in question. The literary disaster is titled “Phenomena can be Characterized as General Patterns in Observations of Psychology Theories.” and is attributed to a single author, Noah Van Dongen. The efficiency of the review process is astounding:

  • 1 April 2022: submission (nice touch on April fools)

  • 4 April 2022: editor assigned

  • 18 April 2022: reviewed

  • 25 April 2022: revised

  • 2 May 2022: published

One month and a day between submission and publication! Receiving and correcting proofs from a journal’s copy editor usually takes me more than a month! It is also very neat that, apart from the submission to editor assignment, everything else was done in exactly a week; like clockwork! I wish my colleagues and I could work this organized and systematic. The terrible text(ual) trifle2 cannot be found on Google Scholar, it does not show up in the Google Scholar page of the journal, and its DOI does not exist. Services, like Google Scholar and Researchgate, who typically notify me when something academic is published under my name, have not picked up on this addition to my oeuvre. The only reason I know of its existence is that a colleague came across it in a Google search for the definition of “phenomena”.

About the content of the linguistic barf, just like the other papers in Issue 4 of Volume 8, it consists of a collection of English sentences that appear to approach syntactic correctness, though devoid of any clear meaning. The only thing it has going for it, is that it is blessedly short. It is good to read that there were no conflicts of interest, but it’s too bad that they misspelled my name. In the Netherlands, our surnames can have prefixes, like “van” or “van der” (which translates to “from”), which are not capitalized. My surname is spelled “van Dongen” not “Van Dongen”. Just pointing this out. However, considering the quality of the commentary, it is surprising they got so close to getting my personal information correct. Yes, this verbose vacuity is published as a commentary, though for the life of me I cannot figure out what it is supposed to be commenting on.

Trying to make sense of the senseless drivel, it seems like the true authors have taken part of the introduction from a preprint (that I did write) and ran it through a thesaurus to avoid being flagged for plagiarism, creating what is called tortured phrases. The paper that they used as the mold seems to be an early version of Productive Explanation: A Framework for Evaluating Explanations in Psychological Science, which was posted on PsyArXiv on 13 April 20223. For comparison, here are the first sentences of the original and the forgery, respectively:

In the wake of the replication crisis in psychological science, many psychologists have adopted practices that bolster the robustness and transparency of the scientific process, including preregistration (Chambers, 2013), data sharing (Wicherts et al., 2006), code sharing, and massive reproducibility studies (e.g., Aarts et al., 2015; Walters, 2020).

Right after the replication emergency in mental science, numerous clinicians have embraced rehearses that support the vigor and straightforwardness of the logical cycle, including preregistration, information sharing, code sharing, and enormous reproducibility studies.

I did not take the time to figure out which other sentences they used for the figurative butchery (or is ‘literal’ more appropriate here?) and what kind of procedure they used to end up with this collection of sentences. It looks like they just selected a certain part of the introduction, but I am not sure.

The process of getting the paper retracted and succeeding partially

I think this is enough for setting the stage. Let me now tell you about my journey of getting the verbal catastrophe retracted, of which I explicitly own the copyrights. This story started in November of 2022 when a colleague stumbled across the linguistic salad. Ironically enough, we were working on the original, wanting to improve our definition of phenomena, and searching for definitions by others that we might be able to use. It is quite a surreal experience to see your credentials on work you know you didn’t produce while simultaneously searching your memory for what you could have done to make this happen.

As a true academic, I acted immediately, ten days later. My first attempt was emailing the journal requesting the removal of the textual horror. This was on 8 December 2022.4 I gave the journal ample time to respond (or I forgot about this problem due to other stuff that was going on at the moment). But, after three months without reply, I contacted the legal team of the University of Amsterdam. They were very understanding and wanted to be of assistance.

On 11 2023, the UvA’s legal team emailed Acta Psychopathologica demanding the retraction of the atrocious article and threatened legal action if they did not comply. Acta Psychopathologica did not respond to this email either. On 20 April, the legal team sent a reminder, to which they also did not reply. At the moment, Acta Psychologica has not responded to any of our messages.

The UvA’s legal team had also advised me to report the identity theft to the Rijksdienst Identiteitsgegevens (RVIG; translation: the identity data safety services of the Dutch government), which I did on 11 April 2023. Conveniently, the RVIG has an online form for this. However, identity theft is usually about the illegitimate use of your credit cards or passports. It was more than a bit awkward to write about how you have been impersonated to publish shoddy scientific work in (a website that calls itself a) journal. Nine days after I submitted the form, the RVIG contacted me. They were very understanding, but told me there was nothing they could do for me. They advised me to report the crime to the police.

Again, other responsibilities got in the way. About a month later, I called the police on 1 June 2023. The central operator noted down the specifics of my predicament and told me that the department responsible for identity theft would contact me to make an appointment, which they did on Saturday 3 June 2023. As it turns out, reporting identity theft must be done in person at the police station. Maybe this is to make sure that it is actually you that is reporting the theft of your identity. On 13 June 2023, I went to my appointment to report the crime, which took about an hour. The officer taking my report was friendly and understanding. Actually, she was very understanding considering the curiousness of the situation. Noteworthy about this experience, is that she wrote the report from my (first person) perspective, but in her own words. There are many new experiences I am gaining throughout this journey, and this was one of the strange ones. Reading something as if you said it, correct in terms of content, though not in a way that you would say, is surreal to say the least. You are instantly aware of your own idiolect. Or at least, that is what I experienced.

A week later, I informed the UvA’s legal team of the police report. They promptly sent another email to Acta Psychopathologica requesting them again to remove the semantic puree, though this time adding that the crime had been reported to the police and that legal action would follow.

The UvA’s legal team also contacted the Editors-in-Chief of Acta Psychopathologica to request them to remove the language pit stain. They received two replies to this request, which can be summarized as: I did not actually do anything for this journal and I would like to be removed from the editorial board.

On 7 July 2023 the horrendous word swirl was no longer visible on the website. There are now only four papers in Volume 8 Issue 4 instead of five. However, the pdf version of the paper can still be reached and I am still listed as an author on the Prime Scholars website.

What is next?

My paper is not the only instance of identity theft in Acta Psychopathologica and other Prime Scholars journals. Currently, I am contacting the other authors in Acta Psychopathologica one by one to ask if they wrote the paper that is attributed to them but this is a slow process. My aim is to make them aware of the fraud and start requesting the traction of the fraudulent papers.

I’ve also come across this article in The Times Higher Education, which mentions legal actions being undertaken. I’m trying to find out if legal actions against Prime Scholars are indeed in the works. If so, I hope I can join them. If not, I want to get them started.

What you can do to help

  1. Check if you or people you know have papers attributed to them in a Prime Scholar journal.
  2. Contact me if you are also a victim of identity theft and want to join legal actions against Prime Scholars.
  3. Share this story and (ask people to) take action against Prime Scholars.
Generating academic articles that appear authentic has become much easier now large language models like ChatGPT have arrived on the scene. I think it is safe to assume that we don’t want fake papers to start invading our academic corpusses; devaluing our work and eroding the public’s trust in science. This does not seem to be a problem that will solve itself. We need to take active steps against these practices and we need to act now!

One last thought about publishers

Don’t you think that ‘respectable’ academic publishers should accept some responsibility for this predicament we find ourselves? If outfits like Prime Scholars are making a mockery of their business and start poisoning the well, should they not also undertake (legal) steps to protect their profession? 
1 Also, see this article on Retraction Watch
2 For the interested, a trifle is a layered dessert of English origin. In Friends’ episode 9 of season 6, Rachel tries to make this dessert for Thanksgiving and accidentally adds beef sautéed with peas and onion to the dessert. The result still sounds better than the paper in question.
3 The astute reader realized that this is 12 days after it was supposedly submitted to Acta Psychopathologica. For everybody else is now also aware due to this informative footnote.
4 I know you Americans like to put the month in front of the date, that just looks wrong.

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