Academic Publishers Pay Lip Service to Peer Review Standards

October 18, 2013

Science magazine has published an important article about today’s open-access academic journals— Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but I’ll share some highlights here. Journalist John Bohannon begins:

“On 4 July, good news arrived in the inbox of Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. It was the official letter of acceptance for a paper he had submitted 2 months earlier to the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, describing the anticancer properties of a chemical that Cobange had extracted from a lichen.

“In fact, it should have been promptly rejected. Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless. I know because I wrote the paper.”

You see, Science performed an elaborate sting operation across the rapidly growing field of open-access journal publication. Most of these journals make money by charging authors upon acceptance of their articles; Bohannon began to suspect a number of these publications were motivated to accept papers that would not stand up to rigorous peer review, despite assertions on their websites to the contrary. What he found is truly disheartening.

See the article for the methodology behind the fake paper and Bohannon’s submissions procedure, both of which are informative in themselves. The results are disheartening. When the article went to press, far more journals (157) had accepted the bogus paper than rejected it (98). Even respected publishers like Elsevier and Sage were found to host at least one of these questionable journals. Most of the publishers that performed any review at all focused on mechanical issues like formatting, not substance. What is going on here? Bohannon offers:

“A striking picture emerges from the global distribution of open-access publishers, editors, and bank accounts. Most of the publishing operations cloak their true geographic location. They create journals with names like the American Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences or the European Journal of Chemistry to imitate—and in some cases, literally clone—those of Western academic publishers. But the locations revealed by IP addresses and bank invoices are continents away: Those two journals are published from Pakistan and Turkey, respectively, and both accepted the paper…

“About one-third of the journals targeted in this sting are based in India—overtly or as revealed by the location of editors and bank accounts—making it the world’s largest base for open-access publishing; and among the India-based journals in my sample, 64 accepted the fatally flawed papers and only 15 rejected it.”

So, opportunists in the developing world have seized upon faux-reviewed academic publishing as the way to turn a PC and an Internet connection into profits. Good for them, bad for science. How does one know when Bing or Google links to fake info? Does it matter anymore? I have to think it does. I hope that people in the field, like Bohannon, who care about open access to legitimate research will find a way to counter this flood of bad information. In the meantime, well… don’t believe every link you read.

Cynthia Murrell, October 18, 2013

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