The incentives are all wrong


Meat “scientist”

There are scientists I respect, and there are scientists I do not. José Manuel Lorenzo is in the latter category, although I’m sure he wouldn’t care. He’s rolling in the money and the false coin of scientific “prestige”.

Meat expert José Manuel Lorenzo, 46, is the researcher who has published the most scientific studies in Spain. He put his name on 176 papers last year, according to a count by John Ioannidis — an expert in biomedical statistics at Stanford University — which was requested by EL PAÍS.

Lorenzo publishes a study every other day (if you include weekends). It’s an astonishing figure, far above the second-highest ranked scientist: the prestigious ecologist Josep Peñuelas, 65, who published 112 studies in 2022

I’m trying to picture the logistics of all that. It typically takes a month or more to get a paper published, and that’s if there are no revisions or rejections. I’ve heard of high priority, dramatic results getting a turnaround of a week or so — maybe trash papers that no one cares about similarly get rapid publication. At any rate, it must mean he’s got dozens of papers stacked up in a queue at any one time. How does he find time to cope with revisions, let alone actually write them? Forget about actual research. The “evidence” backing up the claims that warrant a publication would have to be done in a day or two!

Oh wait, there is a way. Don’t do the research, don’t do the writing, and don’t even read the papers.

José Manuel Lorenzo is the head of research at the Meat Technology Center (CTC) — an entity dedicated to meat products, supported by the regional government of Galicia — in San Cibrao das Viñas, a city in the Spanish province of Ourense. A person who has worked with him recalls that, around 2018, his laboratory became “a sausage factory.” Lorenzo went from publishing less than 20 studies a year to signing his name to more than 120. “He doesn’t even have time to read them,” says another person, who has collaborated on projects with the man.

At one point, Lorenzo began collaborating with exotic researchers — who nobody knew about — on topics that have nothing to do with meat. Four months ago, he published a study on the hospital management of monkeypox, alongside Iraqi, Indian and Pakistani co-authors. And a year ago, he and some researchers from India and Saudi Arabia published an article on the treatment of gum disease with bee venom. In a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS, Lorenzo admits that he doesn’t know any of these co-authors in person, nor is he an expert on any of these issues.

That’s a serious lack of integrity he is admitting to. I was trained to understand that if your name was on a paper, you were expected to have contributed significantly to the work, and are familiar with the entirety of the procedures and results. You are responsible for the content of the paper. You can be held accountable for any errors, or worse, any fraud. It’s supposed to be a weighty thing…but not to Lorenzo.

One tool that allows this to go on is the existence of paper mills.

India is one of the countries where so-called “paper mills” are concentrated — factories that churn out scientific studies which are already written and ready to be published in specialized journals. Co-authorship is offered in exchange for money. EL PAÍS requested price rates from one of the Indian companies that sends their offers to Spanish scientists: iTrilon, based in Chennai. The company’s scientific director Sarath Ranganathan offered the possibility of being the first author of a study that was already written — entitled Next-generation neurotherapies against Alzheimer’s — in exchange for about $500. It’s also possible to be the fifth co-author of an article titled Emergence of rare microbial infections in India for $430. iTrilon promises to publish these ready-made studies in the journals of the world’s leading scientific publishers: Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, Science and Wiley. Last year, the academic publishing industry acknowledged that at least 2% of studies each journal receives are considered to be suspicious. Sometimes, the number of suspicious studies is marked as high as 46%.

Another factor is that grant review and institutional committees are far too willing to do little oversight and superficial evaluation. The problem is that we assess scientific work based on publication, which is already poisoned by capitalism and exploitation, and not by being read.

Although, I must admit, I can understand how someone might be tempted by $400 or $500 flowing into one’s bank account every two days just for rubberstamping a stupid paper.

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    So I can be a co-author of -simultaneously- quantum physics, molecular biology and exoplanet science? Yes, I always thought I was a renaissance man.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    He is the new Abderhalden (the nazi doctor who “discovered” abwehrfermente ).

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    One of the things which turned me off academia was the “how many papers can we squeeze out of this topic?” mentality.

  4. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@4,
    That is largely a result of the academic management mentality of “how many papers can we squeeze out of this academic?” !

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @5: It all stems from “quantity preferable to quality”. I suspect those who evaluate grant applications don’t often read the papers listed.

  6. kome says

    I’m sure there’s a neat meta-science study to be done mapping the geography of types of scientific fraud. I’d maybe make some preliminary observations based on a few Retraction Watch Database searches, but they’d just be observations based on raw numbers of occurrences of this or that kind of fraud by country rather than rates based on how much scientific research comes out of those countries. The United States and China are, by a wide margin, the two countries that have the most occurrences of retractions for a whole host of reasons (e.g., articles co-authored by researchers in the United States account for nearly half of all articles retracted on the basis of fabricated data or results), but they’re also the two countries that output the most scientific papers, so that’s only one lens through which to view the scope of the problem of scientific fraud.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly though, regardless of the kind of fraud, it really does seem to be a problem of men’s behavior. Even taking into account the disproportionate number of men in science relative to the general population, men are over represented by a huge margin as perpetrators of scientific misconduct. Hell, the Retraction Watch leader board (listing the people who have had the most number of total retractions) is entirely populated by men.

    Maybe the real general lesson here is that to fix science, men shouldn’t do science unless supervised by people who are not men.

  7. carlgz says

    Long time lurker here, registered just to comment on this.

    I grew up in Galiza, and went to university there, to USC not UVigo though. Grifting of this sort is extremely common among those associated with the Galician government, which except for a couple of brief periods, has been held by the Galician branch of PP. If you think your republicans are accomplished crooks, check PP out, specially in Galiza.

  8. larpar says

    “Although, I must admit, I can understand how someone might be tempted by $400 or $500 flowing into one’s bank account every two days just for rubberstamping a stupid paper.”
    I’m not sure I understand. Is the paper mill paying Lorenzo or is Lorenzo paying the paper mill?

  9. lotharloo says

    The major problem is that the incentives are wrong. But I don’t know how to fix it. Having a percentage of the grants distributed randomly is one way to reduce the problem but it will never help to fix it.

  10. says

    I remember the publication obsession in graduate school. I also remember choosing honesty despite not knowing why I was struggling, and still having an imperfect idea about what happened.
    The most “helpful” the professor I worked under was involved hyper focusing on occasional tourettic verbal flubs to wonder about my competence. It’s a broken factory that can burn.

  11. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Is “The Meat Technology Center” a fancy way to say Sex Toy Factory?

  12. says

    This was before the diagnosis (my grad school struggles were why I saw a neurologist), but still, switching translation and transcription isn’t hard. This is why pharmacists usw the small and tall letters to make sure they get lookalikes and soundalikes right. That was stress as much as TS.

  13. robro says

    Following larpar @#8, it’s not 100% clear to me who is paying who, but based on PZ’s comment that it would be nice to have $500 show up in your bank account I assume iTrilon is paying researchers to use their name. If that’s the case, how does iTrilon make its money?

  14. Jemolk says

    lotharloo @9 — How to fix it? Oh, it’s only as difficult as replacing our entire economic system with one that cares about people rather than outputting continuous saleable products. (It’s capitalism, in other words. As trite as it seems at first glance, it’s practically always capitalism. And we fix it by replacing capitalism, no matter how hard that may be.)

    larpar @8 & robro @13 — Pretty sure the point is that paper mills are the ones rubberstamping someone’s inclusion on a paper for money. The warped incentives for the researchers, meanwhile, have to do with the obsession with publication as the only relevant metric of academic success.

  15. larpar says

    Jemolk @ 14
    So in PZ’s last sentence, he’s talking about money flowing into the paper mill’s bank account?

  16. keinsignal says

    As an avid watcher of Bobby Broccoli’s YouTube channel, the second I read “176 papers a year” I knew something was horribly wrong. This should be a huge red flag – nobody publishing at that rate is actually contributing to science – at best they’re signing their names to other people’s work, at worst they’re committing outright fraud. (the aforementioned channel’s videos on Jan Hendrick Schön being the example that immediately leaped to mind). Even the legendary Paul Erdős never broke 100 publications in a single year as far as I can tell.

  17. wzrd1 says

    @11, The Meat Technology Center is where they make Fleshlights.
    Oh, was that my outside voice?

    @12, so propofol and propranolol are different drugs?
    Not too different if one is dyslexic.
    Seriously though, the US DoD had a lengthy program to halt use of brand named drugs in favor of the generic names, which did have a significant reduction in medication errors. That was followed up with the small and tall letters, further reducing errors.
    I see a vestige of that with my current primary’s medical system, with pseudorandom caps in various drug names. Alas, errors in that system abound. To the point where I have errors in my medical history that are literally impossible to have corrected, as did my wife.
    Eliminate all sources of errors, one has eliminated all humans. For, people will find another way in which to fuck up.
    Found in a program many years ago:
    ON ERROR GOTO HUMAN

  18. Jemolk says

    larpar @15 — That was my reading, yes. Note in the last big blockquote of the post, it’s referring to being added as an author in exchange for money. Perhaps there would be a more literally accurate way of phrasing it, like the money going into the company coffers, rather than the apparent implication that all of it is going to someone’s personal bank account, but either way, someone’s making a big old pile of money off of rubberstamping additions to the author lists of papers, no?

  19. robro says

    Here’s some blurb from the front page of iTrilon’s website:

    Need paper publication for your promotion & salary hike?
    Worried about where to start and how to write a manuscript?
    Is the continuous rejection of your papers bothering you?
    Pay hikes and promotions are made easier through our publication support!
    No more waiting to see your name in PubMed!
    Get your papers published in reputed impact factor journals from Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, SpringerLink, Nature, Science, Wiley, etc.

    Get your Ph.D degree faster with good quality publications
    Need a publication in a reputed journal from PubMed, Scopus or Web of Science?
    Stretching your nights to draft a fantastic manuscript?
    Are you in the Medical, Pharma, BioScience or Allied Health Sciences field?
    Ever felt you need an unofficial guide to support your paper publication need?
    iTrilon is here to support

    The line breaks are theirs along with some oddly placed bullets on each line. Badly done from a simple web-dev view point. My son could do far better.

    What it seems like they do is get people to pay them to publish a paper, perhaps young students desperate for a publication credential. Then, iTrilon pays more established scientists to add their name to the paper to lend it credit.

  20. says

    The publisher gets paid no matter what. The people who are shelling out $500 bucks are other scientists, who are recruiting established scientists to pad the byline and increase the illusion of credibility.

  21. says

    To summarize and expand the context: this guy is abusive and phony in sooo many ways. He’s like Edison and the MuskMelon, he gets his ‘slaves’ to do all the real work. and then just basks in the phony fame the ignorant reviewers lavish on him. And, as PZ pointed out the publishers are happy to get paid for perpetrating and perpetuating this crap. He is the classic quantity vs. quality (massive quantity and miserable quality). This type of fraud has become all too common in all fields: science, snews, government, etc. So much of the internet is drowning in crap, it’s harder to find worthwhile, substantive sites (and social media is a cesspool). Welcome to the apocalypse.

  22. nomdeplume says

    How did we suddenly get a significant number of scientists with no integrity and no pride in their work?

  23. birgerjohansson says

    Nomdeplume @ 23
    This is a wild guess, but the trend might have started the first decade after the election of Reagan, considering how many other things started going to hell.
    There are consequences for trading a whole world-view for another, more simplistic one.

  24. kome says

    @23

    I think it’s more that there’s an increase in interest in scientists actually looking at what their colleagues say they did. Many of these people getting caught in some form of scientific misconduct or fraud have been doing it for a loooooong time.

  25. wzrd1 says

    @PZ, that’s called pay for play and should always be disqualifying. Oh, did I mention always?
    Should I mention again always?
    Perhaps, at the mere risk of repetition, which I’m rarely accused of, mention always?

    Pay for play journals should be burned – alongside their owners.

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