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A Star Trek Fan Trolled a Scientific Journal in the Most Incredibly Nerdy Way

A biologist tested whether so-called predatory journals, which charge researchers to publish their work without much real review, would really accept anything. Turns out, some will. His “experiment” on what happens to the body at “warp 10 speed” was based on a Star Trek: Voyager episode, but four journals accepted it, and one published.

Scientific publishing is a tough business. But it can also be a lucrative one, which is why even the esteemed pages of science journals may not always be above the fray. While many legitimate publications dutifully peer-review and edit the work they receive, pirates abound. These so-called predatory journals focus more on the money than the science, and for a researcher desperate to publish, a few hundred dollars and an easy peer-review process might seem too good to pass up.

The controversy has gained increasing attention over the past few years, thanks in large part to sneaky scientists like “BioTrekkie,” also known, to a few journals at least, as Lewis Zimmerman. The anonymous biologist is a pretty big Star Trek fan (if you couldn’t tell from the pseudonym), and he decided to test out whether some of the most notorious predatory journals were as well. The paper he submitted described an “experiment” that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Star Trek: Voyager Episode 32, “Threshold,” in which Lt. Thomas Paris makes an effort to finally break warp 10 speed.

On the show, Paris manages to finally break the elusive time-space barrier, but the effects are… unpleasant. He morphs into a fish/frog-like creature, as does Capt. Kathryn Janeway, whom he kidnapped to come along with him on his experimental journey. In the Star Trek storyline, the two procreate and have amphibious space babies before returning to their normal human form.

This is pretty much what happens in “Zimmerman’s” experiment as well. BioTrekkie made a small effort to mask the obvious by using technical language in the paper, but anyone familiar with the series (or real-world biology and physics, for that matter) should have been able to pick up on it. Unless, of course, that’s not what they were looking for.

BioTrekkie submitted the paper to 10 journals suspected of charging authors for publication without doing much editing or review. He listed himself and six other Star Trek crewmembers as co-authors, listing their affiliation as the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Starfleet Academy. Ultimately, four journals accepted the paper and one — the American Research Journal of Biosciences — published it. (The paper, “Rapid Genetic and Developmental Morphological Change Following Extreme Celerity,” has since been deleted from the journal’s website.)

BioTrekkie isn’t the first to expose a predatory journal in action. Last year, another scientist conducted a similar sting using a Star Wars plotline. Four journals fell for that one, too. In both cases, the journals asked for several hundred dollars for publication. In BioTrekkie’s case, the fee was ultimately negotiated down to $50.

So, how does this happen? Experts say it’s an unfortunate consequence of the opening up of scientific research. It’s expensive to subscribe to an academic journal, so open-access journals have been flourishing. Instead of subscriptions, these journals make money by charging authors for submissions. In some cases, as with the well-known open-access journal PLOS ONE, this arrangement is mutually beneficial and opens up science communication in a necessary way.  

Some, however, have taken this opening up of science research as an opportunity to game the system. These predatory journals are “essentially counterfeit journals, mimicking the look and feel of legitimate online journals, but with the singular goal of making easy money,” said Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado.

It can be hard to tell whether or not an online open-access journal is legit, but BioTrekkie suggests perusing their websites carefully and trying to assess the validity of the other papers published there. Even this can be deceiving, however. Even the American Research Journal of Biosciences seems to publish some legitimate research, leading BioTrekkie to wonder whether researchers desperate to publish their real work might have been fooled.