Batesian and aggressive mimicry in academic publishing: A proposal for escalation of the coevolutionary arms-race

The following is a guest post from friend of the blog and Assistant Professor of Biology at Willamette University Chris Smith.

mimicry_snakes

Figure 1. Kingsnakes and milksnakes are Batesian mimics of the deadly coral snake. 1A: An eastern coral snake. Photo by Norman Benton, via Wikimedia Commons. 1B: A Mexican milk snake. Photo by Dawson, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mimicry is a common phenomenon in the natural world, where one organism evolves to resemble another. Familiar examples include (harmless) king snakes that have banding patterns remarkably similar to the (extremely venomous) coral snake (Figure 1), or (palatable) Viceroy butterflies that resemble (toxic) monarchs. These so-called ‘Batesian’ mimics enjoy the benefits of appearing to be dangerous while paying no costs. That is, they escape being eaten by predators without having to produce toxins themselves.

A second, less familiar, form of mimicry is ‘aggressive’ mimicry, in which predators use deception to more effectively attack their prey. For example, some fireflies mimic the sequence of flashes emitted by females of other species, and then attack and eat the unsuspecting male fireflies that come to court them. Similarly, some butterflies in the genus Maculinea are social parasites of ants, and produce chemicals on their exoskeleton that resembles the scent of ant larvae. Foraging ants discover these seemingly helpless babies that appear to have wandered away nest and carry them back to the brood chamber, where the butterfly larvae proceed to devour the ant larvae.

The world of academic publishing has recently seen the convergent evolution of mimicry in ways that remarkably mirror the strategies seen in the natural world. As has been carefully researched and documented by Jeffrey Beall, a reference librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, the Open-Acces movement has inadvertently given rise to a legion of ‘predatory publishers’. The publishers offer (for a hefty fee) to publish research papers without the process of rigorous peer review that would normally precede the publication of scholarly work. (NIB contributor Sarah Hird described her experience with a predatory publisher here).

Most of the papers published by such ‘predatory publishers’ are Batesian mimics. They enjoy the imprimatur of academic legitimacy without having to pay the cost of rigor, but like the king snake they are otherwise ‘harmless’. These are typically papers of low importance and low impact, sometimes with shoddy experimental designs, that would not pass muster in more rigorous journals. But rarely, if ever, is the work truly fraudulent.

However, the academic world has also seen a rise in ‘aggressive mimics,’ authors who publish in open access or specialty journals with intention of pushing pseudoscientific claims into the academic mainstream. For years, evolutionary biologists have had to contend with ‘Answers Research Journal’ (ARJ), a journal that, according to the journal’s website is “a peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework.”

ARJ, published by Ken Hamm’s ‘Answers In Genesis‘ Christian ministry in Kentucky, creates a parallel publication track for pseudo-scientific research undertaken with the expressed goal to,  ‘affirm the truth of the biblical record of the real origin and history of the world and mankind’. Although the journal does have a peer-review process, reviewers are exclusively those who “support the positions taken by the journal,” and the review criteria include faithfulness to the “normative interpretation of scripture”

Pseudoscientific journals are not unique to the creationist movement. Climate change deniers have also used this strategy to great effect. For example, the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPII) is, according to sourcewatch.org, is a global warming skeptics’ website and blog, run by the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. At the SPII website you can read seemingly scholarly reports about why it is essential that we continue to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide in order to promote the growth of woody plants, and “The Many Benefits of CO2 Enrichment.”   (Incidentally, according to Mother Jones Magazine, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change received more than a million dollars in funding from coal and oil interests).

While most academics have little trouble recognizing these mimics for what they are, it seems that many nonscientists can’t. (For example, The Heartland Institute presented Craig Idso, Founder of The Center for The Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change to congressional staffers as a ‘leading scientist’ in the study of climate change).

The failure to distinguish authentic scientific research from its imitators is particularly troubling when it comes to online aggregators of academic literature. Like many people, I rely on tools such as Google Scholar Alerts, Academia.edu, and Medeley.com to help me keep track of new literature. I was surprised this week when my email alert from Academia.edu, which normally contains references to taxonomic revisions in the Lepidoptera, instead featured two articles (parts one and two) entitled, “21st Century Biology Refutes Darwinian Abiology.”

In these articles the author rehashes many tired arguments made previously by Michael Behe and others in the intelligent design movement: that the complexity we see at a cellular and molecular scale could never be produced by natural selection, that selection only edits and can thus never create anything new, etc. These articles were published in something called “The Harmonizer“, a magazine distributed by the Bhakti Vedanta Institute, which has branches in Berkeley, California and Mumbai, India. A brief overview of the magazine seems to reveal that is another pseudo-scholarly publication, dedicated to denying modern evolutionary biology, but from the perspective of the Hare Krishna Movement.

Although you might guess that this failure to distinguish the mimics from the models would be restricted to services like Academia.edu, where users provide the content and nominate their own work as bona-fide, Google also falls victim to imposters. I frequently make use of Google Scholar when preparing lectures for my introductory evolution course (all too often in the last twenty minutes before class), and with increasing frequency I find creationist propaganda cropping up in the first page of results.

For example, I recently gave a lecture on the Miller-Urey experiment, and I wanted to pull up the original citation. So, glancing at the clock to make sure I still had five minutes before showtime, I headed over to Google Scholar and entered in the search terms “Miller Urey.” When I started browsing the results I was surprised to find, on the first page, a link [1] to an article titled “Why the Miller–Urey research argues against abiogenesis” published in The Journal of Creation, a product of Creation Ministries International.

Similarly, searching for the information about Tiktaalik (an amazing 375-million-year-old fossil with both ‘fish-like’ and tetrapod features, including gills, spiracles (implying lungs), and weight-bearing front legs) among the first page of Google Scholar results, I found links to blog posts from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). ICR describes itself as, “a leader in scientific research within the context of biblical creation,” and which, through the work of its staff attorney Wendell Bird, was instrumental in drafting equal time laws passed by many state legislatures in the 1980’s.

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Figure 2. Google Scholar has indexed an article on the use of E.S.P. in “managerial decision making.”

Both of the articles I’ve just described turned up in honest-to-goodness Google Searches, but creative selection of search terms can turn up all manner of ‘scholarly’ support for pseudoscientific theories, such as “How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction,” and “The Role of ESP in managerial decision making.” (The former is a popular book indexed by Google Books, but the latter purports to be authentic scientific research, published in the African Journal of Business Management (AJBM). AJBM is put out by Academic Publishers, which Beall identifies as a predatory publisher).

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Figure 3: Reed warblers are often parasitized by cuckoos, birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their offspring to be raised by the unsuspecting host. 3A: Cuckoo eggs alongside the eggs of their reed warbler hosts. Photo by Harald Olsen, via Wikimedia Commons. 3B: A reed warbler feeding a parasitic cuckoo chick. Photo by Chiswick Chap, via Wikimedia Commons.

Given the rapid evolution of “aggressive mimics” in the world of academic publishing, perhaps it is time to initiate a coevolutionary arms race of our own. In nature, organisms that are victimized by aggressive mimics often evolve counter-measures to defend against mimics. For example, birds that are subject to parasitism by cuckoos (brood parasitic birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds) often rapidly evolve increased abilities to distinguish their own eggs from those of the cuckoos. Perhaps the academic community needs to evolve an enhanced ability to detect aggressive mimics. Peer review has proved to be an effective, if not flawless, tool for keeping pseudoscience out of good journals. Perhaps we can develop a peer review system for peer review itself, in which scholars would evaluate the review criteria of different journals. Those the do not maintain standards of rigor, or that frequently accept pseudoscientific articles, could be filtered out of the search results from sites like Google Scholar and Mendeley.

Of course, such as system would probably be costly to implement, and ineffective in the long term. We can reasonably predict that, like their analogs in the natural world, aggressive mimics of academic literature will evolve counter-counter-measures to overcome the increased discriminating ability of the host. However, the predictable increase in the arms races does not seem like a reason not to develop countermeasures. To do nothing would be to let the parasites win.

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[1] I’ve not supplied links to the articles that turn up in these Google Scholar searches, in the hopes of not further inflating their page ranking. Instead, I’ve supplied links to the Google Scholar results pages (back).

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4 comments on “Batesian and aggressive mimicry in academic publishing: A proposal for escalation of the coevolutionary arms-race

  1. davidpcraig says:

    Perhaps we need to invest more energy into grassroots movements that promote skepticism and reason. I can imagine a group of people meeting for a semi-social hour of coffee and chatter as they collectively post and repost REASONable words like your own to combat the unreasoned inflation of ‘aggressive mimics’ in the literature.

  2. The problem with what you propose is that my crazy uncle (who fancies himself an authority in all things intellectual because of his PhD in political communications and his administrative position at a public university in Texas) isn’t interested in hearing about your reason and skepticism. He doesn’t have to ask questions because he thinks he has it figured out. That said, I don’t think he’d find an accepted peer review system for peer review any more worth his time either, unfortunately.

    I love the idea proposed in this post, but if such an accountability structure was ever established, I am positive that every BS journal under the sun would completely denigrate it… and people who like what those BS journals have to say will likely disregard it, too. Sure, it’d be nice if faux-scholarly journals weren’t making the front page of Google Scholar, but as long as this stuff’s getting “published,” people who value those views will be find affirmation (baseless as it may be) from those publications.

  3. Macrobe says:

    New bumper sticker ‘Support critical thinking!’
    Collin, the plethora of your uncle-types is why I fled the University of Texas system. ‘Academia’ no longer applies there.

  4. Jeremy Fox says:

    Interesting analogy. But as you suggest at the end, it’s hard to imagine pseudoscience ever being stamped out, just because it’s been with us for more or less as long as science has. Historian Michael Gordin has an interesting book on this which I reviewed a little while back:

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/book-review-the-pseudoscience-wars-by-michael-gordin/

    It’s striking how in so many respects the decades-old case Gordin considers parallels other cases, both older and more recent. The more things change…

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