This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.
Open access. “Publishing for the people!” It’s a good idea, right?
Yes! And no… sort of.
The positives of open access are overt. Science emerges from behind the paywall. Everyday citizens have a chance to directly read about and scrutinize the exciting discoveries shaping tomorrow. Research can become faster and more efficient. Even scientists can benefit. Sharing data openly can yield more citations and boost the impact of their work.
But negatives exist, too, and one of the most glaring issues has just been starkly highlighted in Science. In a creative sting operation, Harvard-based biologist and journalist John Bohannon concocted a wildly erroneous spoof scientific paper and sent it out to 304 open access journals from around the globe. By the end of his mission, more than half accepted the paper for publication!
The concerning and embarrassing result almost certainly can be attributed to the open access business model. In the traditional, closed process, exemplified by journals like Nature and Science, the costs of publication and peer review are paid by the readers: often researchers, academic institutions, and libraries. However, in the open access model, the authors submitting the manuscript pay the fees, leaving the science free to the public. Can you spot the problem? Since open access publishers are effectively paid up front, the more papers they accept, the more money they make. Consider this: fewer than one in ten submissions are accepted by Nature, while more than 80% of papers make the cut at Frontiers, a Swiss open access publisher. In general, costs at open access journals range anywhere from $50 to upwards of $3,000 per paper.
Frontiers, however, is considered one of the top open access publishers, and likely wouldn’t have fallen victim to Bohannon’s elaborate ploy. Here’s what it involved: The operation began with choosing targets. Bohannon selected 304 English language open access journals from two sources: the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and a list curated by University of Colorado library scientist Jeffrey Beall. DOAJ is widely considered a source of credible open access journals, while Beall’s list features journals identified as potentially dishonest.
Next, Bohannon set about formulating a “credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable.” He settled on a paper that reports how a new molecule from a species of lichen inhibits the growth of cancer cells. With the help of two all-pro groups of Harvard molecular biologists, Bohannon drafted the paper, carefully inserting flaws that “were both obvious and ‘boringly bad.'”
Between January and August, Bohannon submitted the paper to various journals at a rate of about ten per week, randomizing the author names and institutions each time. He described his process as follows:
“If a journal rejected the paper, that was the end of the line. If a journal sent review comments that asked for changes to layout or format, I complied and resubmitted… After a journal accepted a paper, I sent a standard e-mail to the editor: “Unfortunately, while revising our manuscript we discovered an embarrassing mistake. We see now that there is a serious flaw in our experiment which invalidates the conclusions.” I then withdrew the paper.”
255 journals underwent the entire editing process. Of these, 157 accepted the hoax paper and 98 rejected it. Disconcertingly, 45% of the DOAJ journals that completed the process accepted the paper. To DOAJ’s founder, Lars Bjørnshauge, a library scientist at Lund University in Sweden, this was surprising.
“I find it hard to believe,” he told Bohannon. “We have been working with the community to draft new tighter criteria for inclusion.”
A good chunk of the journals that accepted Bohannon’s paper were lesser known journals from India or China, but a notable few were published by respected companies like Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage.
Not all publishers came off looking bad, however. PLoS ONE, perhaps the most popular open access journal, and often criticized for publishing supposedly questionable articles, soundly rejected the hoax paper in less than a month, citing ethical problems and an overall lack of scientific quality. The spoof paper’s errors also didn’t escape the watchful gaze of reviewers from the Egypt-based publisher Hindawi.
Open access is a worthwhile and valuable idea. But reviewers and editors of open access journals must hold themselves to the onerous standards demanded by rigorous, proper science and not fall for the juicy temptations of easy money.
Editors at the China-based journal International Journal of Cancer and Tumor were clearly derelict in their duties when they accepted Bohannon’s paper. After Bohannon requested that it be withdrawn, Grace Groovy, a representative of the journal with a name too amazing to be real, sent the following reply:
“We fully respect your choice and withdraw your artilce. If you are ready to publish your paper,please let me know and i will be at your service at any time.”
Source: John Bohannon. “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Science vol. 342. October 2013
(Image: Editing via Shutterstock)