Peer review sting of open access journals

Howdy, friends–no time to waste this morning, but did you hear about this sting of open access science journals published in Science today?  From the article, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”, by John Bohannon:

Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. Beyond that headline result, the data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.

From humble and idealistic beginnings a decade ago, open-access scientific journals have mushroomed into a global industry, driven by author publication fees rather than traditional subscriptions. Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured. But Science‘s investigation casts a powerful light. Internet Protocol (IP) address traces within the raw headers of e-mails sent by journal editors betray their locations. Invoices for publication fees reveal a network of bank accounts based mostly in the developing world. And the acceptances and rejections of the paper provide the first global snapshot of peer review across the open-access scientific enterprise.

Apparently, many of these journals are being run as for-profit enterprises, with authors being expected to pay for publication.  This explains the astonishingly high rate of acceptance.  The sting’s fake paper had a remarkable acceptance rate, although there were open access journals that rejected the paper almost at the speed of email:

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

The rejections tell a story of their own. Some open-access journals that have been criticized for poor quality control provided the most rigorous peer review of all. For example, the flagship journal of the Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, was the only journal that called attention to the paper’s potential ethical problems, such as its lack of documentation about the treatment of animals used to generate cells for the experiment. The journal meticulously checked with the fictional authors that this and other prerequisites of a proper scientific study were met before sending it out for review. PLOS ONE rejected the paper 2 weeks later on the basis of its scientific quality.

Your thoughts, especially you science-y people?  I don’t think there is such a thing as a pay-to-publish humanities journal, but I could be wrong.

24 thoughts on “Peer review sting of open access journals

  1. The obvious question is, what happens when the same article is sent to traditional model journals?

    There are certainly humanities OA journals with publication fees. A perusal of the DOAJ will pick them up, including:

    -Asian Culture and History
    -English Language and Literature Studies
    -International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
    -Open Journal of Philosophy

    They are less common than in the sciences, and the fees are smaller.


  2. A few years back, I received a handful of emails from pay-to-publish journals. The prices to publish varied by journal (fixed rate, per page, etc…) If I remember correctly, most of the physical addresses linked to the journals were in various cities throughout Germany and England.


  3. It’s really not right, though, to equate “pay to publish” with “open access.” That is perhaps the central thesis of a piece I published today at the guardian: What Science — and the Gonzo Scientist — got wrong: open access will make research better

    but i think your piece ends with exactly the right question. there are very good reasons to think our quality control system isn’t what it should be. how shall we fix that?


  4. There are definitely pay-to-publish humanities journals. I know firsthand of Humanities faculty (NOT in my department!) who have been denied tenure for trying to pass off these publications. They are certainly more common in the sciences (including social sciences) where you live or die by journal publications, and less so in fields where the monograph is the gold standard for tenure… but they do exist, and people do try to count them.


  5. Pay-to-publish journals in obscure countries is bad enough, but I am stuck by the fact that Elsevier-published journals were also fooled. Is the problem also the insatiable publish-in-quantity machine? The top-flight journals in my field take months to review a manuscript, you feel good if you get “revise and resubmit” as your first reply, and if it’s published within 16 months that’s good. Admittedly science articles are much more time-sensitive, but my real point is that if all journals followed rigorous peer-review procedures it would not be possible to publish in the quantities that today’s tenure committees expect. American scholarship culture is one of the causes of this problem.


  6. That sucks so bad. I had wanted to believe in open-access journals because it’s nice to be able to read research articles without belonging to a university or paying gobs of money (which I don’t have). It makes it easier for amateurs to participate in science.


  7. Our department counts only papers published in top journals in a field. That is, OA are useless as well as journals with less than stellar reputation.


  8. Ah, the “Social Text” moment, redux. You would think they would at least google the “Wassee Institute of Medicine.” How many such journals there may be in our fields I don’t know, but a loose analogue might be the e-mails that bombard, describing massive conferences, often in places like Honolulu or Athens, covering every subject under the sun, and inviting proposals on topics “including but not limited to” everything that’s ever been known and not known. The registration fees seem on the cheap side, even for these fancy venues. When I first got on the track I almost bit on one of these, even though my school wouldn’t have given me a nickel to fly to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize. But I thought it might generate a little buzz, behind which I could come up with something that was really presentable, elsewhere. I let it go, though. If you have anything that’s true and worth saying, and for whatever reason don’t want to deal with peer review, I would think you’d get as much benefit for your buck by self-publishing as by wiring it to one of these things. Somebody would see it and say, wow, if that’s so… let’s check it out. Peer review after the fact. But really, what’s wrong with a few readers’ reports?


  9. As Michelle Meyer has pointed out, because there was no control group, we really cannot conclude anything about the relative quality control of OA as compared to traditional paywall journals.

    Michael Eisen argues that what the sting really shows is the total unreliability of peer review:

    (FWIW, I think it’s like democracy: the worst system imaginable, save all the other ones that have ever been tried).


  10. There are definitely Pay-to-Publish Humanities journals. Almost every time I give a conference paper, I get a little flurry of emails from such publications, inviting me to publish with them for only X bucks. Like Beal, in Oz, we call them predatory publishers and we warn our students not to go near them and neither do we because they don’t count for jack on your CV. I don’t know anybody whose actually published with them.

    Something I have noticed is that the ‘board of experts’ on these journals do consist of real academics (sometimes well-known), and it makes wonder whether they have consented to be on this board of experts. I’ve always wanted to email and ask them but I’ve never actually known anyone who is on them personally. It seems to me more than a bit problematic to offer your authority to these sorts of publications.


  11. Feminist Avatar, I seem to remember reading once that one professor listed on one of these boards had to write in several times before he could get himself removed. So some of them may know, but others may not.


  12. Hi everyone–thanks for weighing in on this. I am at a conference now and will be busy all day long, but please carry on the conversation.

    I didn’t mean to imply that OA = pay-for-publish. I can see that the Science article seems to confuse that issue. However, it seems like there is a strong connection between the two. It’s unfortunate, esp. for apparently legit outlets like PLOS-one, etc.


  13. Our university library offers subsidies for faculty who publish in OA journals that require a fee. I have no idea what kind of quality control they do. I don’t know of such journals in my field but I am sure I will be finding out.


  14. There was a weird moment in a department meeting a few years ago where the department chair said we were going to have to figure out a funding model for open access journals — she was addressing the concerns of a faculty member who had sent a piece to one of these journals, had it accepted, and then gotten the $800 bill for actually getting it published.

    I think people are more savvy now, but as an untenured faculty member at the time I didn’t know quite how to say the obvious, ie, “we don’t need to figure anything out, except that that is a scam”. Instead I said there were lots of reputable open access journals that didn’t have those fee structures in place, so perhaps it was not really an “open access” issue (dot dot dot). Interestingly no one else said anything at all, which could have been embarrassed silence or genuine perplexity. I still don’t know, though I do know the whole issue went quietly away and was never brought up again so I guess they figured it out for themselves.

    Solicitations come across *all the time* for my discipline (anthropology), mostly from journals based in South Asia — I have also, once, been solicited to act as a reviewer for one such journal. It felt as if they were trying to go through the motions of peer review, but in a more or less random way: I was asked to review a paper about something, I don’t quite remember what, in rural Bangladesh (very very far outside my purview). Of course I declined.


  15. Kathleen & all–thanks for your comments & experiences with either O/A or pay-to-publish journals.

    I think Kathleen has the answer to the problem: faculty should not support pay-to-publish journals, but reputable O/A journals should get our support and cooperation. Furthermore, junior faculty should be strongly discouraged in no uncertain terms from publishing in the scammy journals. This is very important.


  16. Two comments on the Science sting:
    First, we recently published a reviewed paper on the break-up of icebergs in the Ross Sea in the flagship Journal of Geophysical Research, a publication of the non-profit American Geophysical Union. The page charges were $3,000 with copyright assignment, and $6,000 without. We paid the $3,000 from federal contract funds, which was really $4,500 including university overhead. Through this overhead, we also contributed to the University Library purchase of a hardcopy and digital subscription of the journal.

    Second, the submission by Science of ~500 copies of the same paper to different journals must have put an large workload on a relatively small group of reviewers. For example, for our Ross Sea paper, I doubt that there were more than 30 possible reviewers. The reviewers of the Science sting paper must have moaned at its 37th appearance on their desktop.


  17. I occupy a relatively obscure corner of the humanities, and have received quite a few solicitations from predatory journals. Here’s one that contacted me recently (I’m our department’s GPC) asking me to forward a call for papers to our grad students.

    It’s already on Beall’s excellent list that NotoriousPhD mentioned. He’s really on top of things, and I tell our grads to bookmark his list and refer to it every time they get an e-mail invitation to publish that sounds too good to be true.

    There are also vanity conferences like the Oxford Round Table, a private company not affiliated with the university but that manages to flatter attendees into paying about $3,000 to attend. They send out mass invitations. People do go and have a lovely time, but it’s not the academic honour that the company tries to make it seem. I think they were sued a few years ago for hiding their lack of connection to the university, and most US state universities will now refuse to cover travel costs to it.


  18. This is a late comment, but I think it’s an important note: “faculty should not support pay-to-publish journals, but reputable O/A journals should get our support and cooperation.” Unfortunately, excluding pay-to-publish (aka “Gold OA”) will exclude useful and reputable journals, like PLOS ONE.


  19. Are any of you at institutions who have adopted an Open-access publishing policy? As the editor of a journal dependent on revenue from Project Muse hits, I have objected to ours (in formation) and insisted that faculty have the option of declining to post their research, even after a publisher’s embargo. I’d love to have input from other historians.


Leave a Reply to Ruth Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.