Stand: 19.07.2018 06:00 Uhr

More than 5,000 German scientists have published papers in pseudo-scientific journals

More than 5,000 German scientists have published papers in pseudo-scientific journals, according to reporting undertaken by German public broadcasters NDR and WDR together with the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin and additional national and international media outlets. Reporters found that researchers from German universities, institutes and federal agencies have frequently published articles, many of them supported with public funding, in worthless online scientific journals belonging to pseudo-scientific publishers, so-called predatory publishers, that fail to uphold basic standards of quality control. Globally, it is a problem involving fully 400,000 scientists, the reporting has found.

The phenomenon of predatory publishers has been known for several years, with German universities and research institutes having issued multiple warnings. But both the scale of the problem and the rapidly climbing numbers are new. The number of such publications put out by the five most important publishing houses has tripled globally since 2013, according to the reporting, and in Germany it has quintupled.

The reporting shows that the predatory publishers take advantage of the pressure on scientists to publish and target them by email. The scientists involved pay high fees in exchange for the publication of their research results in internet-based journals put out by companies located in South Asia, the Gulf region, Africa or Turkey. The companies claim that they follow international peer-review standards and have the research results checked and corrected by other experienced scientists prior to publication. Our reporting shows, however, that the peer review process is usually skipped. Articles are frequently published within just a few days of submission, a situation that often leads to questionable studies reaching the public eye with what purports to be a scientific certificate of approval. The reporting has shown that many researchers are victims of these fraudulent practices. In other cases, though, study authors have taken advantage of the services offered by such predatory publishers to quickly publish their research results without having to subject themselves to the peer review process.

Prominent university professors in Germany have authored numerous papers that have appeared in such publications, including: Günther Schuh and Achim Kampker of RWTH Aachen University, who became well-known for their collaboration in the development of the electric vehicle known as StreetScooter; Peter Nyhuis, a university professor in Hannover who is a leading member of the German Council of Science and Humanities; and Bernd Scholz-Reiter, president of the University of Bremen. Schuh said he had been unaware of the phenomenon and immediately instructed his colleagues to cease publishing papers on such platforms. Kampker noted that internal university investigations into the matter were ongoing. Nyhuis expressed his regret and stated that he had been "unknowingly victimized by a system," adding that he immediately stopped such publications at his institution upon learning of the problem. Scholz-Reiter maintained that he had been unaware of the methods used by such publishing companies at the time and that he now condemns the practice. Large German pharmaceutical companies have published studies in pseudo-scientific journals while climate-change skeptics use the publications to spread their theories. Employees of 12 of the 30 companies listed in Germany's blue chip stock market index, the DAX, have either published articles in such journals or participated in their conferences.

Numerous distinguished academics are alarmed by the numbers. Randy Schekman, the U.S. Nobel Prize laureate in physiology or medicine, said on the sidelines of this year's meeting of former prize winners in Lindau, Germany, that he was horrified that scientists have made use of the services provided by such pseudo-scientific platforms. The American physician Ferid Murad, likewise a Nobel laureate, said that the credibility of science was at stake. Robert Huber of Munich, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1988, spoke of fraud, adding: "This kind of thing has to be stopped." Fellow Nobel laureate in chemistry Stefan Hell of Göttingen said: "If there is a system behind it and there are people who aren't just duped by it, but who take advantage of it, then it has to be shut down." But Hell warns against turning it into a political issue. "I have faith that science has a self-corrective mechanism," he said. Joachim Funke, a psychology professor and the ombudsman for the University of Heidelberg, says it is a "disaster for science because it allows unchecked claims to be promulgated and made to look like science."

A preponderance of large research institutes and numerous German universities stated that they were aware of the problem but were surprised by its dimensions and condemned the practices of the fake publishing houses, the predatory publishers. From the perspective of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, the predatory publishers are "an extremely negative and problematic phenomenon within the scientific publication and communication system which should be combated using all available legal means." It threatens "not only the reputations of individual scientists," but also "faith in science itself." The association said it had alerted affected scientists to the problem. Jörg Hacker, the president of Germany's National Academy of Sciences, argues in favor of taking an aggressive stance against such publications. The Fraunhofer Gesellschaft has welcomed the reporting and issued a statement saying: "The establishment of awareness of such dishonest practices and their consequences is an important step toward putting a stop to such schemes." Meanwhile, Gerd Antes, director of the medical foundation Cochrane Germany, is critical of researchers who have intentionally published papers with the fake publishing houses to circumvent peer review. "I find it extremely irresponsible for reputable scientists to publish papers in outlets where disreputable authors are discernibly and intentionally given a platform, thereby enhancing their status," he said.

The investigative reporting consortium comprised of NDR, WDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung worked together on this story with the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in evaluating 175,000 scientific articles published by five of the most important pseudo-scientific platforms. Reporting for the project took place over the course of nine months and included the participation of journalists from 18 additional media outlets, including all German state affiliates of the public broadcaster ARD and the German public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk in addition to Le Monde (France), The New Yorker (U.S.), the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, Aftenposten (Norway), The Indian Express (India), and the Korean investigative portal Newstapa. Reporters from the participating media outlets successfully published numerous non-scientific papers with the pseudo-scientific publishing platforms and participated in several of their conferences. They will be publishing and broadcasting the results of their reporting around the world starting on Thursday, July 19.

German public broadcaster ARD (Das Erste) will broadcast the documentary "Fake Science" on Monday, July 23, at 9:45 p.m. The radio program NDR Info will be broadcasting its six-part podcast series, likewise called "Fake Science," on weekdays from July 19 to 25 at 7:08 a.m. and 4:08 p.m. each day. The podcasts will also be available on the internet at Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin will be publishing the findings on Friday, July 20, in its cover story entitled "Die Ware Wahrheit," or "The Commodity of Truth." The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has published an article in its current issue based on the reporting conducted by WDR.