A peer-reviewed journal is supposed to accept a paper after a proper review. Over the years anyways, many facts have proved that not all journals put due attention to the review stage, and epic fails, trolling and Easter-eggs may come along. In this, the role of Italians is pretty relevant. Since the age of Caligola, the Roman emperor who referred an horse as Senator to underline his little consideration of the Senate, Italy has build a solid tradition of trolling, stupid jokes and other annoying antisocial behaviours. After all, rolling a journal is pretty easy if your native language is relatively unknown to the rest of the world, and it’s quite straight to hide foul language into acronyms.
The “Stronzo Bestiale” fact, for instance, went down to history. In 1987 the american physicists Bill Moran and William G. Hoover, published a paper about the application of fractal theory to gas diffusion. The paper was submitted as authored by Moran, Hoover and the Italian researcher Stronzo Bestiale, who was affiliated to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Palermo, Sicily, Italy. The problem is that this institute is totally fictional, and the expression Stronzo Bestiale can be translated as “Full Bastard” in English. According to many rumours, and to the version Bill Moran gave some weeks ago, the idea to put a troll-author was suggested by Giovanni Ciccotti, professor of Computational Physics at the Sapienza University of Rome. The paper had a good scientific relevance anyways, it has been cited 165 times, and it is still available on Springer’s website. Of course, it is not open access.
This was not the only case in which trolling was eased by the usage of Italian language. In 2003, Norrel and Wheeler from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, proposed the Missing Entry Replacement Data Analysis value, as a replacement approach to deal with missing data in paleontological and total evidence data sets. Reverting this into an acronym, it comes out as the MERDA value. In Italian, the term merda means shit. Of course, you can find the paper proposing this shit value on the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology. I am still figuring out whether this is a real Easter egg, or just a coincidence. For sure, Keith Bradnam could find this relevant to his noble mission against the ongoing threat to humanity from the bogus use of bioinformatics acronyms, even though this work shifts far from bioinformatics.
Another funny fact moves our attention towards engineering. The Italian communication engineer C. Di Nallo, proposed his folded inverted conformal antenna (FICA) for multi-band cellular phones, to a congress in 2005. The Italian term fica can be translated as pussy or cunt.
Of course, we could add tens of examples. I still have a preference for the idea those guys who submitted a very clear message to the journal asking them to quit sending emails had. Right about two hours ago, an headline on vox.com reported the publication of a paper authored by Maggie Simpson and Edna Krabappel. For the few ones who ignore them, they are two characters of The Simpsons cartoon serie.
Beyond the fun, we could try to take a couple of conclusions from these facts. Of course, as the law of the jungle established in Science, a deadly competition came along, running many scholars into a “publish-or-perish” mentality. On the other side, journals are also constrained by the draconian laws of the market. The need to achieve a good amount of papers published while keeping the costs low, may cause the small publishing group to skip some reviewing steps.
Can we do something to fight this in order to improve the peer-review system? Well, I am actually submitting my very first paper, I have not enough experience, and I can just share my very, very humble opinion. Anyways, if you consider the publishing mechanism as a complex machine, a small percentage of errors are quite natural. Even if any effort to polish off literature from junk papers is desirable, I fear that we won’t be able to prevent any mistake. And, after all, who really needs that? Without a bit of irony, things could get unbearably boring. Even Science.