Note: I have replaced links to the dodgy website with links to Snopes and Wikipedia instead.
Google Scholar is linking to alkaline quackery
Pseudoscience has no business being included in scholarly research so I was most alarmed to see this alert turn up in one of my weekly Google Scholar email alerts.
The link title promises a article called “The Annual Conference on Bacterial, Viral and Infectious Diseases held in Dubai, UAE and published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases & Therapy”. I get hundreds of similar alerts a week, most are only tangentially related to my own work. Mostly I just review the titles quickly and add the interesting ones to my Endnote databases. But something made me pause on this one. That name seemed somehow familiar…
Whoop, whoop. Danger Will Robinson!
That Google Scholar link actually resolves to a WordPress blog, not a scholarly journal!
And finally to a URL https://phoreveryoung.wordpress.com/page/6/. It’s a alkaline diet quackery website by the notorious Dr. Robert O. Young. And of course it includes a horrific collection of links to more bunk and woo-woo in the sidebar. A Universal Cure for Cancer! The Truth Shall Set You Free! Are YOU Prepared for the BioHazardous Effects from 5G EMF Radiation? In case you don’t know, Young is a convicted fraudster, sentenced in 2017 to 3 years and eight months in jail for practising medicine without a license. In 2018 he had a US$105 million settlement awarded against him in a lawsuit against him by a woman, who claims he advised her to not undergo surgery and to forego traditional chemotherapy treatment for her breast cancer. Instead he advised her to undertake alternative therapies including “pH injections”, and subsequently her cancer progressed to incurable stage IV..
As it turned out the original URL was a dead link, which is an inherent problem with blog URLs. A quick WordPress search turned up the original article from September 2018 announcing that the site’s owner Dr. Robert. O. Young was going to be presenting his breakthrough alkaline diet “research” in a keynote at a workshop on the “New Biology” at this Dubai conference.
So what exactly is this conference. Tracking his screenshots gives the conference website as http$://b@cterialdisease$.infectiou$conference$.com which is part of a “global” collection of >3000 “events” of what I’m guessing are mostly predatory conferences, which is run by a known dodgy group called ME Conferences. Hilariously, attempting visit their website failed while I was connected to our network:
So this is a known quack and woo-spammer, who’s also notorious for spamming social media. Spamming Facebook or Instagram isn’t particularly unusual, but what’s highly troubling to me is that Google Scholar’s algorithm thought it noteworthy to include a dodgy blog post from 2018 into my weekly alerts. Worse still there is no known reporting mechanism to have this corrected. Google is very opaque about how it’s algorithm ranks or rates a scholarly source, saying only:
“Google Scholar aims to rank documents the way researchers do, weighing the full text of each document, where it was published, who it was written by, as well as how often and how recently it has been cited in other scholarly literature.”
Google Scholar’s inclusion documentation says that the usual forms of scholarly output such as journal articles are the primary source of content, and that news and editorials are not appropriate. So where do blogs lie? I would call my own blog pages more opinion/editorial in nature so would never consider them worthy of inclusion in Google Scholar. Google Search sure, but not Google Scholar.
Personal Blogs and Pseudoscience do not belong on Google Scholar
I hope that this is an isolated incident. As there is no way to see how this made it through Google’s algorithm, nor any feedback form or other mechanism to report or stop it, it is difficult to guess how many other such pseudoscience articles, blogs, and opinion pieces have made it’s way into the Google Scholar database, and thus acquired an underserved badge of legitimacy.
This is a particularly alarming development, particularly at a time when engaging the public with evidence-based medicine is critical, rather than purveying modern-day snake oil. Science has built-in mechanisms like peer review in place to fact-check and build up a reliable body of knowledge, which is needed to gain and retain public trust. It is deeply problematic that pseudoscience and quackery has been allowed to by-pass these processes and be served up by Google as legitimate scholarly work.
If anyone else has seen this type of thing in their Google Scholar searches or alerts, let me know. Either here in the comments or on Twitter where I’m @MartinStoermer