Fishy birds, birdy fish, poisonous fungi, and pizza: Our “scientific breakthroughs” published in predatory journal

Did you see Dan Baldassarre’s wonderful paper entitled “What’s the Deal with Birds?” published on April 1 (!) last year? If not, you’re in for a treat. Dan did something that I had been thinking of for quite a while, namely to reply to one of the countless requests for manuscripts that he, I, and probably most scientists who have ever published anything, receive from predatory journals. He decided to write up some crap, submit it, and try to get it published, to prove a point. You can retroactively follow the whole saga in his Twitter thread, and very well-deserved, the story received quite a bit of attention. And what’s not to like? Dan concluded that birds are weird, and a partial result was that penguins look like fish (weird).

Figure 1 from Baldassarre (2020).

Well, like I said, I had been planning on doing something similar for quite a while and discussed it with my friend Danny Haelewaters. Since I am an ornithologist who, at the time, worked on fish, and since Danny is a mycologist, we thought that Dan Baldassarre’s initial explorations were noteworthy, but felt that they could be expanded and go deeper. Thus, we embarked on a truly interdisciplinary collaboration that made use of cutting-edge methodology, and we could expand Dan Baldassarres’s observation quite dramatically:

As the attentive reader will have seen, we can draw several conclusions from our study. As a side result, it turns out that barn swallows and flying fish are sister lineages (quite the taxonomic earthquake!). For the main result, we predict that penguins will re-evolve flight as poisonous fungi colonize the Antarctic, if the temperature rises, and this decreased fishiness will increase the chances of you ordering a penguin pizza in the future! Didn’t quite catch that? Well, read our ground-breaking paper, and as a bonus you might pick one or two hints at the publishing industry (and other things)!

Writing this paper was fun and quick, and it has been accepted for publication in multiple journals. However, we were less successful than Dan Baldassarre at haggling to get it published without paying the ridiculous publication fees that makes up the core of the business model for predatory journals. So, it has taken until now to finally get this paper published, but along the way, we have received some golden nuggets, such as this “peer review report” from the Journal of Ecosystems and Ecography:

Our paper is now out in the Oceanography & Fisheries Open Access Journal, published by predatory Juniper Publishers. So what—and why? I am sure that some of you will think this is just rubbish, and that’s fine. Some might even find it NOT funny, or perhaps even vulgar. Well, I think that our paper very clearly demonstrates the total lack of review and the sole interest of profiting on authors that the predatory journal industry rests upon.* We further intend to deal with this in a more formal and serious manner, using our fishy bird paper as an example. Keep your eyes open for that!

Reference: Stervander M & Haelewaters D. 2020. Fishiness of piscine birds linked to absence of poisonous fungi but not pizza. Oceanography & Fisheries Open Access Journal 12(5): 555850. DOI: 10.19080/OFOAJ.2020.12.555850.


Update 1: We do not regret the least that our reference no. 4 is no longer available on its original platform.

Update 2: *Does this work? What have other attempts looked like? Zen Faulkes have collected and curated “sting papers” such as ours in an online volume, Stinging the Predators—A collection of papers that should never have been published. This collection comprises 340 pages worth of sting papers and analysis. We are, of course, happy that our paper has been included as no. 33 in version 17 of this freely available resource!

Update 3: Sam Perrin has written a blog post at Ecology for the Masses, where he broke down our paper “for the benefit of those outside the scientific community who may not understand complex jargon like ‘pizza toppingness’ and ‘random selection by dart'”. We’re talking serious #SciComm here! Also (as can be seen in the comments below), Jerry Coyne has written a blog post about our paper, commenting more generally on hoax/sting papers and predatory journals.