On April 1, a strange bit of open-access scholarship appeared in the Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews: “What’s the Deal with Birds?” A worthy query by researcher Daniel Baldassarre, surely, yet to the discerning eye, there is something odd about the paper.
For one thing, its abstract strikes an unusually ingenuous tone: “Birds are pretty weird. I mean, they have feathers. WTF? Most other animals don’t have feathers.” And the sample size—a woodpecker, a parrot, and a penguin—also seems suspiciously small. The main figure, a graph plotted along an x-axis ranging from “weird beak” to “looks like a fish,” with a red line labeled “the deal,” is a textbook example of dadaist absurdity. The prose veers wildly between academic terminology and gormless observation. “This is the first study I am aware of to attempt to quantify the deal with birds,” Baldassarre writes. “Unfortunately, the results were ambiguous, although Bayesian approaches may prove useful in the future...When presented with weird behavior, birds exhibited a multimodal response including physical aggression and duetting, both of which were repeatable across highly variable contexts.”
Reading such a paper, one might draw the conclusion that the editors at Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews didn’t give it close enough consideration—or any at all—before publishing the study. That’s because the SJRR is a predatory journal, designed to bilk unwary academics out of money, and Baldassarre’s paper is a joke—quite literally—at their expense.
Predatory journals are a common scam in academic fields. They solicit manuscript submissions, charge authors exorbitant fees, and skip typical quality checks, including the gold-standard practice of peer review. Since legitimate open-access publications like PLOS One do sometimes charge for submissions, it’s not uncommon for people to get snookered.
“They do all sort of sneaky things, like having fancy, sneaky looking websites,” Baldassarre says—even going so far as to list real scientists on their editorial boards, often without those scientists’ knowledge. Some journals are just automated money-making scams; others are a bit more hands-on at appearing legitimate. “The common denominator is that they’re not real academic, peer-reviewed journals, so anything they publish is potentially just total garbage.”
Baldasarre first had the idea to submit a joke paper in early February, when the latest in a long line of emails from one of these scam journals landed in his inbox. He slapped together the first iteration of “What’s the Deal With Birds”—a couple of paragraphs in the cursory format of a manuscript—only to see it rejected, perhaps as an obvious parody. Undaunted, he inserted some selections from an earlier legitimate paper to pad it out and resubmitted it to SJRR. “I wanted to bring to light how these guys operate, how ridiculous the process is, and that they are not, in most cases, reviewing these works,” he says.“Some people who’ve been in academia for a while are in the know, but there are clearly enough people who aren’t on the up and up and are just getting scammed.”
While SJRR initially demanded a $1,700 publication fee, Baldassarre was eventually able to bargain them down to nothing. “I think they thought if they published the first one for free I’d be more willing to publish with them later,” he says. As for whether the journal is aware of the prank, Baldassarre says the world of predatory journals is so ambiguous that it’s not clear whether the people running them are even paying attention to what’s published. His hope, meanwhile, is that the notoriety the piece has inspired will prompt people not to publish with SJRR in the future and to be more careful of predatory journals in general.
His cause is noble, no doubt. Yet an important question remains: What is the deal with birds? Baldassarre’s actual research involves bird behavior, and aims to discover why they do some of the strange and silly things they do. While observation and experimentation have their benefits, Baldassarre notes dryly, they can only take you so far. “Obviously it’s a joke, but it gets at a kernel of truth," he says. "That’s how science works, right? You’ll never completely have all the answers. We may never truly understand what the deal with birds is.”