Pharma’s predatory data problem: The need for vetting

Physicians and pharmaceutical companies rely on the dissemination of research in order to constantly develop treatments and new medications that can improve patient outcomes and help ameliorate illness and disease. However, pharma professionals need to carefully vet research sources in order to avoid the “fake data” that has become increasingly prevalent throughout modern academia.

The problem began with the advent of open access, a phenomenon which began around 10 years ago as journals shifted away from dependence on subscription revenues to a model where authors or backers would pay for publication of online articles that would then be open to the public, the New York Times reported. This shift was undertaken with the best of intentions and was applauded at the time by legitimate organizations such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS) as a way to facilitate communication of scientific findings among researchers and academicians. Despite these good intentions, however, this shift also opened the door for the rise of predatory journals and congresses.

The New York Times described these publications as ones that “masquerade as scholarly journals but are actually in the business of pumping out worthless articles and exploiting scholars with hidden fees.” In addition, open access publishers — who frequently sport realistic-sounding names that often resemble those of established and reputable publications — will often accept nearly every submitted article in order to maintain their revenue, Forbes noted. These papers can be maliciously false – and the unethical creation of fake journals in order to make money from fees has already occurred.

Forbes noted that, because of this phenomenon, the existing body scholarly work has been flooded with papers that have a) never been submitted to the peer review process and/or b) have been deliberately falsified. To make matters worse, these papers can be cited in other, legitimate journals and receive, by association, a prestige they do not deserve. Search engines like Google Scholar can make this problem worse: according to an article in Pharmaceutical Education, six fictitious papers were uploaded onto a institutional website as an experiment. Google Scholar subsequently indexed these articles and Google Metrics added the citations for the fictitious authors from the documents; the fact that these documents were faked went undetected.

This flood of pseudo-journals can have serious implications for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders. Another article from Forbes notes that these journals “will create a never-ending demand for fake breakthroughs and science-y sounding studies that are built on the house of cards” and it might possibly mean that pharmaceutical companies could be basing their research and development on false science generated from these publications. This false research can also “dilute the reputation of decent publishers“, according to an article in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, and cause legitimate medical data to become suspect. Separating the wheat from the chaff has become more important than ever.

Fortunately, there are resources to help academicians and pharma companies to sort the legitimate from the pseudo journals. While the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists legitimate open access journals, Beall’s List, compiled by Professor Beall, an associate professor and academic librarian from the University of Colorado, identifies potentially predatory journals. Beall’s criteria for a suspect journal includes the following red flags:

  • There is no specific individual listed as the journal’s editor.
  • There is a lack of geographical diversity on the editorial board, especially in journals which claim to be “international” in scope.
  • The journal’s operations lack transparency.
  • The journal’s name is incongruous with its stated mission.

While Professor Beall later took down his site after problems with lawsuits, his work on this subject remains definitive. The research below, taken from his archived site, is a good indication of the proliferation of these pseudo-journals in recent years:

Again, the problem is not simply a rise in these predatory journals but in predatory medical conferences as well. A recent article in the Huffington Postby Dr. Madhukar Pai (professor and Director of Global Health) and Eduardo Franco (professor and Chair of Oncology) at McGill University notes that invitations to talk at a conference can be important for academic reputations. When these conferences are organized by legitimate professional societies, they are also important to help disseminate information and catalyze scientific and medical progress. Increasingly, however, many conferences fail to live up to these ideals: “There is a lot of money to be made in the scholarly-conference organization business in Asia these days. These are not conferences organized by scholarly societies. Instead, they are conferences organized by revenue-seeking companies that want to exploit researcher’s needs to build their vitas with conference presentations and papers,” the authors mention.

To give a sense of the growing scale of the problem, here are the number of problematic conferences organized by just one such company:

In short, open access may have helped disseminate important scientific information to the medical and pharmaceutical community faster, but it has also led to the proliferation of predatory journals and bogus medical congresses. These not only take monetary advantage of academicians but also help to spread false information within academia and the medical community –including the pharmaceutical industry. Given these new problems, careful vetting of sources for both journals and conferences is more vital than ever.