Sa, 2.12.2023

The dark side of Estonian science: paid articles in trashy magazines

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Ekraanitõmmis

Estonia has spawned a bunch of scientists who like to lengthen their CV with articles published in «science magazines» for money. The grey market abounds from Bangladesh to Nigeria. Universities in Estonia recognize the problem but no-one has a solution. 

It all began last fall. A best known plagiarism hunter, Priit Pärnapuu teaching basics of scientific philosophy in TTK University of Applied Sciences handed his students a task to find in the scientific information system (ETIS) scientific articles regarding which poor magazine quality might be suspected. «What the students discovered was rather embarrassing,» recalls Mr Pärnapuu.

Turns out, over the past five years the scientists of TTK had published 71 scientific articles placed by ETIS as under classification 1.2. In other words: the articles have been published in respectable publications with high level international boards of editors and prior review.

Taking a closer look, the fancy facade collapsed. Of the articles found, a whopping 59 have appeared in blacklisted science magazines. «For instance, 17 science magazines lacked the ISSN code. Strictly speaking, these articles cannot be included in the scientific information system at all!» exclaimed Mr Pärnapuu.

The comparison was based on a list by Jeffrey Beall, an American. Mr Beall is a recognised science fan whose exhaustive database has uncovered hundreds of DIY pseudo science magazines. The criteria used by Mr Beall to expose the cheats fill six pages but may be condensed to this: often, a magazine like that only appears in the web. Often, the international desk of publishers is mere illusion. Prior review – if at all happening – is done in a few days, not in weeks.

Who needs such «science magazines»? As explained by Mr Pärnapuu, these are the so-called predatory open access magazines. Open access publications as such are nothing evil: as these emerged in 2005, the idea was making science available independent of money. Unlike earlier science magazines with enormous subscriber costs, open access is free for the reader and the publishers seek for funding elsewhere like from universities or sponsors.

Here’s the rub. Soon enough, businessmen detected a source of income. As respected magazines turn down the work of some scientist, he is eager to seek for alternatives where it does get published – as last resort. On the average, publishers ask for $170. Once you transfer the money, problems are excluded.

It is assessed that in 2014 such science magazines numbered some 8,000 publishing about 400,000 articles a year and yielding approximately €5m of profits. Mr Pärnapuu says the trash magazines mushroomed in 2012 as is also reflected in the holy grail of Estonian science – ETIS.

Scientists take bait

The claim is no illusion. Mr Pärnapuu tackled all 5,500 articles entered into ETIS by Estonian universities over the past five years and compared these to Mr Beall’s list. The result? A total of 450 publications in the blacklisted magazines. The most – 226 times – were by scientists of Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ). For University of Tartu it was 103, TTK 59, Tallinn University 32 and University of Life Sciences 22.

If the numbers were a private business of the scientists, we might call it quits. In reality, the amount of publications in databases like ETIS is the hardest currency for scientists. Pursuant to statutes of universities, the amount of publications often dictates who gets promoted or gets a grant. What’s more, every now and then, the amount of publications needs to be shown at internal and external assessments.

«These are not merely risks, but these have realised. There are big problems with quality,» claims Mr Pärnapuu who by now has recorded dozens of scientific articles in faulty language or copied.

Economists lead way

Delving deeper, a pattern emerges in the trash magazines. In TTÜ, this is for a narrow circle in construction and economy faculty members whose names Postimees will herewith not publish. Like with TTK, it is rather widespread at TTÜ economy faculty to publish the same scientific work in a string of trashy magazines to get more entries. Mr Pärnapuu holds back judgement, not knowing if the sinners have sinned out of stupidity or selfish gain.

Ironically, the case most outstanding comes from Mr Pärnamäe’s own school. If ETIS be believed, economists Lembo and Toivo Tanning are record breaking guys indeed with a scope encompassing the USA to Bangladesh to Nigeria. «This is an over-the-top factory. 66 problematic cases between the two of them. This is a tenfold professorial job,» gasped Mr Pärnapuu.

With barely two weeks passed after the Russian fighter was shot down in Turkey on November 24th last year, the Tanning guys published a scientific article on the impact of the incident on economic relations between the two nations. «During two weeks, there probably is no impact. This is unthinkable!» claims Mr Pärnapuu. The magazine picked by Tannings detected no problem, however, and published the piece in a couple of days.

Not limited to that, the person of Lembo Tanning sits at expert college at lots of such science magazines. A Nigeria-registered publisher of science article goes as far as to claim its «international board of editors» operates in a private house in Viimsi Parish, Estonia. The Tannings just happen to live there...

Naturally, Mr Pärnapuu proceeded to talk to TTK leadership. «They said none of them was competent to assess that (level of trash magazines – O. K.),» recalls the scientist. Thus the punch-line: as long as the control over scientific work classification is merely formal, universities and the scientific agency managing ETIS are merely watching what is happening.

Depends on how you look

Lembo Tanning told Postimees he agreed not that he was writing to trashy magazines. «Would it be for one magazine which is questionable… But these being 50, on all five continents, then it is a bit weird to say these are all questionable. Whoever claims that is incompetent,» he said.

Mr Tanning said he publishes such quantities because a scientist’s level is determined by the number of publications and quotes. «During the past three years we were quoted at an average of twice a week. Whether I am known in Estonia or not, makes no difference – this is village level. What counts is how I am known in the world,» he said.

Mr Tanning is playing a curious game as in ISI Web of Science, a best respected science database in the world, Tannings are not found. The quotes are indeed visible in Google Scholar, but even there the Tannings have mainly quoted their own earlier works. But even that will boost a scientist’s indicator, the so-called H-index.

TTK rector Enno Lend said the activity of Mr Tanning was unearthed three years ago. «I personally peaked into his works there – it’s an entire Asian branch of industry who produce articles like that.» At the moment, Mr Tanning is no longer on the university payroll. Mr Lend said that while at earlier times the school had also paid for the articles to be published, these past years this had been a private thing with Mr Tanning. «Well we must have overestimated the publications also. The train got a-rolling and now they are publishing whatever wherever. We got exactly what we wanted to produce,» admitted Mr Lend.

TTÜ vice rector for science Renno Veinthal owned up as well. «If asked if we forbid people to publish (in lower level magazines – O. K.) or whether we carefully monitor where people are published, the answer is no.» Despite that, on certain occasions even TTÜ has paid the cost of having the articles published.

Mr Veinthal said he felt changes are needed with publications – especially when the one doing it identifies himself as TTÜ representative. Mr Veinthal would not alter the rules, but would require that the heads of faculties be more inclined to underline the positive practices and to denounce the bad. The new practice is supposed to be implied this very year.

Enter in ETIS whatever you want

ETIS department head Marika Meltsas said the Tannings were no single phenomenon, the colourful guys being many. «Estonia has people – I would not even dare call them scientists –, who participate in publishing these magazines, publish their own works in these magazines, and use that to raise their H-index in Google Scholar, for instance.» The H-index characterises the numbers of works published by a scientist, and of quotes of these.

As far as Ms Meltsas knows, the swindlers have not thus far managed to receive education ministry or scientific agencies grants of project money as the latter have seen them through.  

Education and research ministry press rep Aire Kolk said the ministry is aware of the publish-scientific-article biz but thinks not it is a problem. «This is a phenomenon that comes with these golden open access i.e. publish-for-fee science magazines: a certain amount of magazines are indeed trash,» admitted Ms Kolk.

The ministry does not favour adopting the Beall list as plumbline like in Belgium. The press rep says the scientists themselves ought to separate the wheat from the tares, or at least the universities. «Indeed, articles from all kinds of magazines may be heaped into ETIS, but in the vital processes where level of science is assessed these are no use,» claimed Ms Kolk.