Dear Commons Community,
A staff writer for Science concocted a study (really a sting) to determine the quality of the peer review publication process at over 300 open access online journals. John Bohannon, who has a Ph.D. in biology, crafted a fraudulent cancer-research article, sent it out for review, and painstakingly tracked the responses to it and reported that 157 of 304 online journals had agreed to publish it. He described his study/sting as:
“Between January and August of 2013, I submitted papers at a rate of about 10 per week: one paper to a single journal for each publisher. I chose journals that most closely matched the paper’s subject. First choice would be a journal of pharmaceutical science or cancer biology, followed by general medicine, biology, or chemistry. In the beginning, I used several Yahoo e-mail addresses for the submission process, before eventually creating my own e-mail service domain, afra-mail.com, to automate submission.
A handful of publishers required a fee be paid up front for paper submission. I struck them off the target list. The rest use the standard open-access “gold” model: The author pays a fee if the paper is published.
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. If a review addressed any of the paper’s serious scientific problems, I sent the editor a “revised” version that was superficially improved—a few more photos of lichens, fancier formatting, extra details on methodology—but without changing any of the fatal scientific flaws.
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.”
“The pique is less about Mr. Bohannon’s 4,200-word article, which suggests he confirmed a problem throughout academic publishing, than his magazine’s 200-word press release (read it here; scroll down to see it), which repeatedly emphasized his findings as an indictment of the open-access model. The sting operation, Science said in its promotion, “exposes the dark side of open-access publishing.”
Regardless of his motives and methods, Dr. Bohannon raises the question of the quality of peer review not only in open access but in all scholarly journals.