Opinion: Using Pokémon to Detect Scientific Misinformation
Opinion: Using Pokémon to Detect Scientific Misinformation

Opinion: Using Pokémon to Detect Scientific Misinformation

Predatory journals are especially dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matan Shelomi
Nov 1, 2020

ABOVE: SONJA PINCK

On March 18, 2020, the American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research published my paper claiming that eating a bat-like Pokémon sparked the spread of COVID-19. This paper, “Cyllage City COVID-19 outbreak linked to Zubat consumption,” blames a fictional creature for an outbreak in a fictional city, cites fictional references (including one from author Bruce Wayne in Gotham Forensics Quarterly on using bats to fight crime), and is cowritten by fictional authors such as Pokémon’s Nurse Joy and House, MD. Nonetheless, four days after submission, editor Catherine Nichols was “cheerful to inform” me via email that it had “received positive review comments” and was accepted for publication.

They appear legitimate, but practice no peer review, no editing, not even a reality check.

It’s not the only fake paper on Pokémon I’ve had published or accepted for publication, covering creatures from Pikachu to Porygon. Some would argue that editors cannot recognize Pokémon names, but lines in the text such as “a journal publishing this paper does not practice peer review and must therefore be predatory” or “this invited article is in a predatory journal that likely does not practice peer review” would have tipped off anyone who bothered to read the articles. These papers did not slip in under the radar; they were welcomed in blindly. 

The journals that accepted my papers are predatory. They appear legitimate, but practice no peer review, no editing, not even a reality check. Publishers such as BiomedGrid (which publishes American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research), OMICS, or Longdom Publishing will accept anything so long as authors agree to pay the open access fees, which range from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. (I have not paid a penny so far, as some of these journals publish submitted manuscripts before receiving payment.) Predatory journals are just expensive blogs, no more reliable as sources of scientific information than a celebrity’s Twitter feed, yet unfortunately equally trusted in some circles.

Adapted from a figure that appeared in another paper, “Expression of the Pokemon gene and pikachurin protein in the pokémon Pikachu,” that Shelomi got published in the Academia Journal of Scientific Research this July.
SONJA PINCK

To make matters worse, my Pokémon-inspired paper on the novel coronavirus has already been cited. A physicist based in Tunisia published “The COVID-19 outbreak’s multiple effects,” which claimed that COVID-19 was human-made and is treatable with “provincial herbs,” in another predatory journal, The International Journal of Engineering Research and Technology. He not only cited my article, but also cited one of my made-up references, “Signs and symptoms of Pokérus infection,” as the paper that first identified SARS-CoV-2. When I asked the author how this happened, he failed to see any problem with citing a paper he never read while writing a paper outside his field, and was unaware of the difference between open access and predatory journals. The difference—editing and peer review—is critical: when it comes to public health, fake journals are a real danger.

While evidence shows that the majority of authors publishing in predatory journals are naive researchers from developing countries, ample opportunity exists to use such venues deliberately to push fraud and misinformation. What is stopping someone, using their real name or a fake name (or your name!), from publishing a paper claiming that kale juice prevents AIDS, that vaccines cause transsexualism, that certain races are inferior, or any other equally eroneous drivel, and then publicly citing that paper as evidence? The answer is nothing. It’s been done, with quacks promoting the thoroughly debunked, fraudulent, fake diagnosis of “chronic Lyme” in predatory and post-publication review journals (which accept and publish all manuscripts under the assumption that readers will review them later). One should not automatically trust all documents formatted as a scientific paper.

Don’t real journals publish fraud and nonsense too? Yes, but once the fraud is discovered, they can retract the paper (though far too many do not). So far, more than 30 articles on COVID-19 have been retracted. My paper and the one citing it have not, and never will. Silver lining: they can be used in science ethics classes to educate others about predatory publishing, and have inspired some researchers, such as Carthage College’s Adam Larson, to write Pokémon papers themselves.

How, then, to catch a predator, besides checking Beall’s List? First, assume all journals or conferences that email you unsolicited submission invitations are predatory, especially if they are outside your field, cover overly broad subjects, promise rapid review, or flatter you with compliments such as “eminent researcher.” Any journal with multiple email domains is predatory, as are absolutely all journals that list the worthless “Index Copernicus” number on their website. 

There are no shortcuts in science. If you want to be taken seriously as an academic, do not give predatory journals your business, especially as institutes wise up to the problem and stop accepting such articles on CVs or applications. Although, if any institute wants to grant me an honorary degree in Pokémon Studies for my eminence in the field, I would cheerfully accept. 

Editor's Note (November 1, 2020) - The American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research has informed Shelomi that it will be removing the paper that serves as the subject of this piece as he has not paid the publication fees. 

Matan Shelomi, who writes fake articles under the pseudonym Mattan Schlomi, is an assistant professor of entomology at National Taiwan University. Trademarks here are for the purposes of education and parody under fair use.