Could a plane like this disappear? Photo: Getty.
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Five theories to explain how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have disappeared

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage found, conspiracy-style theories as to how Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared seem increasingly plausible. Planes don't disappear. Or do they?

The most baffling thing about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that it is so difficult to draw parallels with similar disasters. This has never happened before. The airline, the civil aviation authority, the region’s air navigation service providers, and even the aircraft and engine manufacturers themselves appear clueless.

Modern planes don’t disappear: they are equipped with a range of high-tech reporting and recording systems, many of which send back data at frequent intervals to either the airline or the plane’s manufacturers. But, shortly after the plane reached a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, everything seemed to stop. Even publicly available information found on aviation enthusiast websites and transmitted from ADS-B trackers installed on almost all aircraft say absolutely nothing about what happened. This means the aircraft’s transponder stopped working immediately, which is incredibly rare.

The Boeing 777 series is one of the safest, most reliable aircraft in the industry and has a near perfect safety record, having been involved in only ten accidents since its debut in 1995. The aircraft in question was a 777-200ER. It was only 12 years old, and had an impeccable maintenance record.

If the aircraft had disintegrated at the point at which its transponder stopped working, there would be debris spread over a huge area – the same area that has been the main focus of all search activities. Data sent by the aircraft would have indicated some sort of change in speed or height. The area around the point where contact was lost isn’t particularly isolated and the many ships in the vicinity would have seen something, especially given the clear weather conditions at the time.

If all communication had been lost, for whatever reason, and the aircraft had continued flying on its intended course, turned back or gone wildly off course, it would have been tracked. In a region with so many separate air forces, if the aircraft had continued over Vietnam or back-tracked over Thailand then one of their air forces would’ve seen it – even with its transponder disabled.

The information released by the authorities has been confused and inconsistent to say the least – but working on the information we have, there seem to be no obvious explanations for what could have happened:

Did the plane break up mid-air?

At first glance, this would be the most likely reason for the disappearance. In 2002 a China Airlines Boeing 747 disintegrated over the Taiwan Straight, killing all 225 on board. One key parallel here is that this catastrophe took place shortly after reaching 35,000 feet. The main reason for this accident was later found to be metal fatigue caused by inadequate maintenance following a previous incident. Should this have happened to MH370 due to either a structural issue with the aircraft or an explosion caused by a bomb or an exploding fuel tank, there would be debris. In all similar incidents, the wreckage has been found not long after the crash. This makes the most common-sense explanation difficult to believe.

Did the engines fail?

Were the aircraft’s two engines to fail, the plane could still glide for 80 to 90 miles. This has happened before. In 2001 Air Transat Flight 236, a large Airbus A330 (only slightly smaller than the Malaysia Airlines 777) lost all power over the  Atlantic en route to Lisbon. The pilot managed to glide (yes, glide) the aircraft over 65 miles with absolutely no power. Everyone survived.

Did cabin pressure drop suddenly, causing the pilot to lose consciousness?

If an aircraft were to suddenly lose pressure at a very high altitude, there is a chance that this could cause the crew to lose consciousness. In 2005 this happened to Helios Airways Flight 522, a Boeing 737 flying from Larnaca to Athens. The loss of pressure was so severe that it knocked passengers and crew out for almost two hours. In this case, the pilots should have been able to react quickly and connect to oxygen masks, but didn’t. The aircraft flew for almost two more hours until it ran out of fuel and crashed. If this happened to MH370, then it doesn’t explain the sudden disappearance. Data would still be sent from the plane, and the chances are that the crew would have been able to respond.

Did the pilot commit suicide?

This has become one of the Malaysian authorities’ key focus areas. Did one of the pilots do something to crash the aircraft? This is believed to have been the cause of the 1999 Egypt Air Flight 990 crash over the Atlantic. Data recorded by the aircraft and picked up by air traffic control, together with voice recordings from the cockpit, suggested that the co-pilot played a role in this disaster – although this was denied by the airline and not confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Perhaps voice recordings from the black boxes will eventually provide some sort of detail about what happened in the final minutes before, and after, contact was lost. Until then, even this explanation seems unlikely: it doesn’t explain why the plane stopped transmitting data.

Was this a terrorist attack?

This was one of the main initial lines of investigation and the discovery that two Iranian passengers were travelling on stolen European passports generated a flurry of speculation. Now that it seems these men were asylum seekers, the explanation looks much less probable. Besides, why would terrorists target a Malaysian aircraft full of Chinese nationals? Even the western Chinese separatist theory seems improbable. And again, if a bomb had gone off, there would be data or debris. Alternatively, if the plane had been hijacked, surely communication would have been made by now?

With no facts, conspiracy-style theories are becoming almost conceivable. Has there been some sort of cover-up? Did MH370 hit a military aircraft (unlikely at that height)? Was the aircraft hijacked and landed in a secret location for use later on? Did corporate or political sabotage play a role? There are even more peculiar, but strangely hopeful hypotheses involving alien abduction or time travellers from the future, along the lines of the 1989 movie Millenium.

With no mayday call, no data and no wreckage, there are too many theories to follow. Until there’s evidence that the aircraft crashed there has to be hope. After all, planes don’t just disappear. Or do they?

CORRECTION [17/02/2014]: As pointed out by a reader, Helios Airways Flight 522 did not experience a sudden loss of cabin pressure. Instead, a series of mistakes by ground and flight crews meant that the cabin never pressurised during flight, and the warning lights and siren were misinterpreted as a problem with the plane's landing gear. The pilots, crew and passengers passed out, and the plane flew on autopilot until crashing into hills near the village of Grammatiko, north of Athens.

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“Predatory” journals are distorting the brave new world of open science

An outbreak of new journals in recent years threatens the potential benefits of open-access science

The modern, digital era of peer-reviewed science is changing the way high-quality research is being released. As soon as a study has been validated for accuracy, it’s almost immediately published online and covered by a dozen websites before the end of the working day. It can create a sense of collaboration, with more people finding ways to tackle serious challenges such as cancer and climate change. Or it can increase global competitiveness, with discoveries leading to new products and services.

However, there’s been a huge proliferation in recent years of new, obscure open-access journals, potentially hindering quality and verification. A new study published in BMC Medicine is claiming that such “predatory” journals are drastically altering the landscape for the worse, by “preying” on both readers and potential scientists throughout the process. (Incidentally, we can trust BMC Medicine on this. It’s one of many periodicals from BioMed Central, a well-respected subsidiary of the science publishing giant Springer Nature.)

The business model for journal publishing organisations varies. Most are commercial businesses, charging authors a fee to have their papers scrutinised and published, while also charging other individual readers or groups, such as universities, for access. Non-profit groups, like PLOS, only charge authors who have submitted their manuscripts, eventually releasing papers into the public after a round of fact-checking.

This can sometimes become a long, arduous process, given that a journal’s reputation is at stake, especially when publishing high-profile research or claims. We don’t have to look too far back to remember the implosion at the Lancet, with Andrew Wakefield’s unsubstantiated claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Some people (especially friends across the pond) still believe this nonsense. With this in mind, you can see how and why readers can become the ultimate target for misleading declarations in journals.

But it’s understandable why there’s an enormous weight behind having research published. It allows an academic to improve their future job prospects and salary levels, all while giving their work the approval they seek. After all, an academic’s list of published work is an extension of their CV. Just look at any university lecturer’s online profile and you’ll see a string of links to their published research on the same page.

This pressure to publish as much work as possible has led to an explosion in the number of articles by open-access publishers who carry between 10-99 different journals. Only four years ago, the market share was dominated by larger, long-established institutions who each carried 100 or more different journals, covering a range of scientific topics. The study also found “predatory” journals have increased the number of open-access articles from 53,000 in 2010 to approximately 420,000 from 8,000 various journals in 2014.

What may also be contributing to the pressure of becoming a well-cited author is the article processing charge (APC) amounts by “predatory” journals. Unsurprisingly, scientists want to save as much money as possible, with the average cost of publication in these publications approximately $178. This is a far cry from the many hundreds of dollars charged by widely-known and respected journals. For example, Scientific Reports, a journal offered by the powerful Nature Publishing Group, charges $1,495 to process a manuscript, excluding taxes. By having such low APCs, “predatory” publishers can make well-intentioned researchers victims just like their readers, at the same time as making money from them.

Where exactly are these new journals coming from? Investigators Professor Bo-Christer Björk and Cenyu Shen of Helsinki’s Hanken School of Economics note that 27 per cent of “predatory” publishers are based in India, 17.5 per cent in North America and 26.8 per cent in locations impossible to determine. It’s also telling that many of these journals often have the words “international” or “American” in their title in order to display a misleading sense of importance and prestige – something the study highlights.

What separates well-known journals from “predatory” ones is the often lengthy, tedious process it can take in order to publish a study. You can usually see this at the top of a research paper, with dates showing when it was submitted for review and also official publication.

However, even this can reveal major flaws within the peer-review system at some of the most prestigious science periodicals. This was proved by John Bohannon, correspondent for Science, who purposefully submitted fake documents riddled with major errors. In the end, the made-up study was accepted by 157 journals, and rejected by only 98. The story has its own Wikipedia page, so you know it’s true.

Creating hoaxes and half-truths about people or places is just part of everyday life with the internet. But this new (and reliable!) study is showing the possible negative outcome in the drive of pushing more science into the open. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay. Maybe we need to research it a bit more.