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Friday, May 10, 2024

Generative artificial intelligence and scientific publishing: urgent questions, difficult answers

J. Bagenal
The Lancet
March 06, 2024


Azeem Azhar describes, in Exponential: Order and Chaos in an Age of Accelerating Technology, how human society finds it hard to imagine or process exponential growth and change and is repeatedly caught out by this phenomenon. Whether it is the exponential spread of a virus or the exponential spread of a new technology, such as the smartphone, people consistently underestimate its impact.  Whether it is the exponential spread of a virus or the exponential spread of a new technology, such as the smartphone, people consistently underestimate its impact. Azhar argues that an exponential gap has developed between technological progress and the pace at which institutions are evolving to deal with that progress. This is the case in scientific publishing with generative artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models (LLMs). There is guidance on the use of generative AI from organisations such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. But across scholarly publishing such guidance is inconsistent. For example, one study of the 100 top global academic publishers and scientific journals found only 24% of academic publishers had guidance on the use of generative AI, whereas 87% of scientific journals provided such guidance. For those with guidance, 75% of publishers and 43% of journals had specific criteria for the disclosure of use of generative AI. In their book The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder and CEO of Inflection AI, and writer Michael Bhaskar warn that society is unprepared for the changes that AI will bring. They describe a person's or group's reluctance to confront difficult, uncertain change as the “pessimism aversion trap”. For journal editors and scientific publishers today, this is a dangerous trap to fall into. All the signs about generative AI in scientific publishing suggest things are not going to be ok.

From behind the paywall.

In 2023, Springer Nature became the first scientific publisher to create a new academic book by empowering authors to use generative Al. Researchers have shown that scientists found it difficult to distinguish between a human generated scientific abstract and one created by generative Al. Noam Chomsky has argued that generative Al undermines education and is nothing more than high-tech plagiarism, and many feel similarly about Al models trained on work without upholding copyright. Plagiarism is a problem in scientific publishing, but those concerned with research integrity are also considering a post- plagiarism world, in which hybrid human-Al writing becomes the norm and differentiating between the two becomes pointless. In the ideal scenario, human creativity is enhanced, language barriers disappear, and humans relinquish control but not responsibility.  Such an ideal scenario would be good.  But there are two urgent questions for scientific publishing.

First, how can scientific publishers and journal editors assure themselves that the research they are seeing is real? Researchers have used generative Al to create convincing fake clinical trial datasets to support a false scientific hypothesis that could only be identified when the raw data were scrutinised in detail by an expert. Papermills (nefarious businesses that generate poor or fake scientific studies and sell authorship) are a huge problem and contribute to the escalating number of research articles that are retracted by scientific publishers. The battle thus far has been between papermills becoming more sophisticated in their fabrication and ways of manipulating the editorial process and scientific publishers trying to find ways to detect and prevent these practices. Generative Al will turbocharge that race, but it might also break the papermill business model. When rogue academics use generative Al to fabricate datasets, they will not need to pay a papermill and will generate sham papers themselves. Fake studies will exponentially surge and nobody is doing enough to stop this inevitability.