How to run a paper mill

Cover-millMany years ago, while sifting through the shelves of one of my favorite bookshops (Foyles at Charing Cross Road, London), I found out a nice booklet that seemed to be out of place. The book was "How to run a paper mill", but it was not about "mashing up trees and processing them into Fine White Wove" (in the words of the author, John Woodwark, a now retired professor at Bath University). Actually, the book was a light but serious introduction to writing academic papers. After many years, it is still one of my favorite readings, and I consider it much more useful than most "how to.." guides to writing. A few days ago, that title resounded in my head when I read the following piece of news (actually appeared on Science last November):

China's Publication Bazaar

 That article exposed a growing black market in China for authorship of academic papers. In short, a number of "publishing services" firms offer to add your name on an already accepted paper for a sum (in the order of several thousand dollars). The return for the fraudulent author is of course an increase in all its performance figures (number of papers, numbers of citations, cumulative IF, etc.).

Aside from the obvious condemnation of that practice, I would like to add two small reflections:

  1. the practice of adding authors who didn't actually played any role in the research leading to the paper is not new, unfortunately. I guess that any academic has seen something of that sort in his/her life: the added name could be that of an old (and powerful) professor, who didn't perform any research but granted protection, or that of a young researcher, who didn't perform any research but was protected by an old (and powerful) professor. The practice was equally to be condemned then as it is now, since it destroys the system of evaluation of merits that is based on publications. What is new now is that such frauds are not carried out for fear - of the old (and powerful) professor - or for want of protection - by the old (and powerful) professor. Now the fraud is carried out for money, and there's a market for it!
  2. for every fraudulent author there must be a true author, i.e., a true researcher (I mean, a researcher carrying out research rather than sponge off others) who is willing to give away part of the prestige coming from publishing in return for money. Why? Just greed? Or are poorer academics supplementing their salary, treating publications as any other good? Are they running their own vicious "paper mill", selling the products of that mill? Whatever the reason, it is very very sad.
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