This is a little off the beaten path but I thought this story was pretty funny so here it is. A writer who goes by the handle Neuroskeptic created a bogus scientific paper about midi-chlorians, the imaginary cellular components which allow Jedis to manipulate the force in the Star Wars movies. Honestly, I’ve hated midi-chlorians from the moment I heard them in whichever prequel they first appear, but in this case I love them because this sting is funny. Neuroskeptic submitted the paper to nine peer-reviewed journals under the name Lucas McGeorge. Four of them agreed to publish it, despite some really obvious giveaway lines. From Discover Magazine:

  • Beyond supplying cellular energy, midichloria perform functions such as Force sensitivity…”
  • “Involved in ATP production is the citric acid cycle, also referred to as the Kyloren cycle after its discoverer”
  • “Midi-chlorians are microscopic life-forms that reside in all living cells – without the midi-chlorians, life couldn’t exist, and we’d have no knowledge of the force. Midichlorial disorders often erupt as brain diseases, such as autism.”

Apparently, no one at the four journals caught the references. The author even included an entire story taken directly from one of the prequels in the paper:

Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? I thought not. It is not a story the Jedi would tell you. It was a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians [17] to available to the midichlorial electron transport chains, and thus generates Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) [14,15]. He had such knowledge [18] of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying [20]. The dark side of the Force’s a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural. ROS uncouples the midichlorians by increasing uncoupling proteins and increasing the leakage of proteins through the adenine nucleotide translocate. He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he’d taught his apprentice everything he knew, and his apprentice killed him in his sleep. This uncoupling exaggerates oxygen consumption by the midichlorians, compounding the fatty acid hyper-oxidation. Ironic: he could save others from death, yet not himself.

And I have to mention that some of the citations in the paper are almost as funny as the paper itself. For instance:

19. Palpatine S. “Powerhouse of the cell”. Scientific American. 1957; 197: 131-140.

21. Solo H, Bacca C, Martin WF, Garg S, Zimorski V. “Endosymbiotic theories for eukaryote origin”. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B. 2015; 370: 20140330

26. Fett B. “Midichlorial evolution”. Science. 1999; 283: 1476-1481.

Who knew Chewbacca was peer reviewed? According to Neuroskeptic, the point here is that some science journals are just selling peer review to anyone who will pay for it.

So does this sting prove that scientific publishing is hopelessly broken? No, not really. It’s just a reminder that at some “peer reviewed” journals, there really is no meaningful peer review at all. Which we already knew, not least from previous stings, but it bears repeating.

Here’s the video of Palpatine sharing the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise with Anakin Skywalker: