Fake Scientific Paper Fools 157 Journals
Hoaxes have long been a part of history, from the ancient Greeks to modern day. In celebration of April Fool's Day, count down with us some of the greatest moments of trickery known to man.
The Trojan Horse
Whether you believe the tale Virgil tells in "The Aenied" is fact or fiction, the Trojan Horse still stands as one of the greatest hoaxes known to history, real or literary. Legend has it that the Greeks, in a longstanding war against the Trojans, built a giant (and hollow) wooden horse and presented it to their rivals. After the Trojans willingly brought the peace offering into their fortified city, an army of Greeks burst out of the statue and effectively crushed the opposition, using what’s now considered to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Photos by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Im
"The War of the Worlds" Broadcast
On Halloween night, 1938, a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" had people convinced that aliens were invading the United States. The broadcast was orchestrated by the famous Orson Welles (pictured above, answering questions from the press the following day). Much of the show was in an “emergency bulletin” format. Those who tuned in mid-broadcast didn't recognize that they had stumbled upon a fictional show and instead thought they had tuned in just in time to hear emergency announcements that aliens were invading. Welles claimed he hadn't foreseen the hysteria. The event is still commemorated to this day in Grover’s Mill, N.J. (home to the “invasion”) by a stone monument.
The Piltdown Man
The Piltdown Man is literally the definition of hoax. In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward unearthed a strange set of fossils in Sussex, England. These fragments would be pieced together to form the "Piltdown Man" skull and were famously hailed as proof of the "missing link" between humans and apes, according to the British Natural History Museum, which uses the incident as a prime example of "bad science." It would take 40 years, and the invention of better scientific dating, for the skull to be revealed as a fake. To this day, no one (or no group of individuals) has been identified as the mastermind behind the Piltdown Man hoax, although there have been theories.
In the midst of WWII, on June 4, 1944, the U.S. Navy captured the German submarine U-505 and kept it and its surviving crew members a secret. The Allied forces hoped to use the materials and code books found aboard the sub against the Nazis without the opposition knowing they had an upper hand. And it worked. U-505 was towed to Bermuda. The 58 Nazi soldiers captured during the raid were kept in relative isolation and not allowed to send letters from their imprisonment. The German army considered them dead, even sending notice to their families, according to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where the submarine currently is on exhibit to the public. The survivors were eventually released at the end of the war.
Heene Family Video Released to Press/YouTube
Perhaps once of history's most recent hoaxes, the plight of a young boy, Falcon Heene, supposedly launched (accidentally of course) into the Colorado skies in his family's UFO-like balloon, captured widespread media attention on Oct. 15, 2009. Heene would later be found safe and sound, hiding in his family's home. In a news interview the next day, young Falcon Heene would also accidentally mention it "was for the show," revealing the hoax. His parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, admitted to orchestrating the entire incident for the publicity. They were fined and had to serve jail time.
A spoof scientific report was recently accepted for publication in 157 journals around the world, proving how flawed some open-access publications are.
The fake paper was part of a sting operation orchestrated by John Bohannon, a contributing news correspondent to the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science.
He wrote the paper under the fake name “Ocorrafoo Cobange,” supposedly a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. No such institute or biologist exists.
Bohannon, in an article in the latest issue of Science, describes the fake paper as follows:
“Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z. To substitute for those variables, I created a database of molecules, lichens, and cancer cell lines and wrote a computer program to generate hundreds of unique papers.”
That might sound reasonable enough, but the study was riddled with obvious errors and contradictions that an expert in the field should have caught immediately.
Bohannon took the sting operation one step further, by slightly changing each version of the paper before he sent it out to the various journals.
“Submitting identical papers to hundreds of journals would be asking for trouble,” he explained.
To switch up the affiliations, for example, he randomly combined Swahili words and African names with generic institutional words and African capital cities.
“My hope was that using developing world authors and institutions would arouse less suspicion if a curious editor were to find nothing about them on the Internet,” Bohannon wrote.
To position himself as a foreigner writing in his non-native language (the papers were all submitted in English), he translated the paper into French with Google Translate and then translated the result back into English, correcting the worst mistranslations.
To ensure that the versions of the paper “were both fatally flawed and credible submissions,” he had two independent groups of molecular biologists at Harvard University review the paper to fine-tune the scientific flaws so that, as Bohannon described, the mistakes “were both obvious and boringly bad.”
He then submitted the versions of the paper, at a rate of about 10 per week, to 304 peer-reviewed, open-access journals around the world. Despite the paper’s incredible flaws, 157 of the journals accepted it for publication. Only 36 of the journals solicited responded with substantive comments that recognized the report’s scientific problems.
What’s more, Bohannon discovered that some of the journals are not based in the countries they claim. Although many had American or European-sounding titles, several of these publications were actually based in India.
Paul Ginsparg, a Cornell physicist who founded a publishing platform for his field, laments that such a large number of open-access scientific journals are not reviewing papers as they should.
“Journals without quality control are destructive,” Ginsparg told Bohannon, “especially for developing world countries where governments and universities are filling up with people with bogus scientific credentials.”