[e]ven the big, top-tier houses fall victim. Springer and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, two leading publishers, in 2014 retracted more than 120 articles that had appeared in conference proceedings after learning that they had been written not by scientists but by a convincing computer text generator called SCIgen.13 The program—a sort of industrialized version of the Sokal hoax14—allows anyone to create a “scientific paper” by simply providing author names. The resulting text and graphics look like a proper scientific paper, but are gibberish. The fact that any were published means that no one peer reviewed the manuscripts.What happens when, retrospectively, journals try to prune out the junk?
Although one might assume that journals would hold a strong hand when it comes to ridding themselves of bogus papers, that’s not always the case. In 2011, Elsevier’s Applied Mathematics Letters retracted a paper by Granville Sewell of the University of Texas, El Paso, that questioned the validity of the second law of thermodynamics—a curious position for an article in a mathematics journal, but not so curious for someone like Sewell, who apparently favors intelligent design theories over Darwinian natural selection.15
The journal’s editor, Ervin Rodin, blamed the appearance of the paper on “hastiness” and acknowledged that the article had no place in the publication. “Please accept our apologies for our erroneous judgement in even considering this paper,” Rodin replied to a critic of the Sewell article, which was eventually retracted.16
The affair ought to have ended there. But Sewell sued and Elsevier, the world’s largest scholarly publisher, blinked. Not only did it pick up the tab for Sewell’s legal fees—a $10,000 hit—but it took the unusual step of apologizing to him (although it did not order the journal to reinstate the article).17 The article was retracted, according to the notice, “because the Editor-in-Chief subsequently concluded that the content was more philosophical than mathematical and, as such, not appropriate for a technical mathematics journal such as Applied Mathematics Letters.”18
Beyond the financial remuneration, the real value of the settlement for Sewell was the ability to say—with a straight face—that the paper was not retracted because it was wrong. Such stamps of approval are, in fact, why some of those who engage in pseudoscience want their work to appear in peer-reviewed journals.