Is Peer Review A Big Bad Joke?

You, too, could have a paper in a science journal! An investigation reveals that dozens of sketchy titles were happy to publish a study so egregiously flawed it almost had to be fake.

Is Peer Review A Big Bad Joke?
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Is something rotten in the world of academic publishing? Yes, if you read a blockbuster piece in the latest issue of Science magazine showing how many open-access journals have little or no quality control, and apparently put hard cash (in the shape of author contributor fees) before time-honored quality control procedures.


Impersonating a fictitious biologist named Ocorrafoo M. L. Cobange, the “gonzo scientist” John Bohannon created an erroneous paper reporting on the anti-cancer properties of a certain lichen. He submitted the work to 304 scientific publications that use an open-access model, which means they don’t rely on paywalls and reader subscriptions that had been traditional in the academic publishing industry. More than half of the journals (157) accepted the egregiously flawed paper, often without asking for changes. For example, the Journal of International Medical Research, published by Sage, sent an immediate acceptance letter along with an invoice for $3,100.

Bohannon says his “sting” calls into question the open-access movement, which has grown in response to the high cost, and perceived elitism, of traditional journal 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.

Several of the publications he contacted use “American” or “European” in their titles (for example American Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences), despite not actually being based here or in Europe. Some copy text from established journals trying to cut-and-paste their way to respectability, Bohannon says. Many are run from the developing world, notably India, where standards are sometimes lax:

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.

It’s a damning picture. But open-access advocates argue Bohannon has methodological flaws of his own. Heather Joseph, at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, says he didn’t use a control for subscription-based journals (making comparison impossible) and he didn’t randomize the selection of the journals he contacted. Others have pointed out that nobody reads the sketchy titles anyway.

Bohannon is not the first to hoax an open-access journal. Last year, Nate Eldredge spoofed Advances in Pure Mathematics using a “random maths paper generator” called Mathgen.

But it’s not like all open-access journals are bad, and all subscription titles are the good. Many of the former did indeed quickly rejected Bohannon. And, many of the latter have a lot to answer for–for example, driving up prices to ridiculous levels–up to $40,000 for a subscription–and restricting access to non-academics, even for studies funded by federal taxpayer dollars. Essentially, the issue isn’t the publishing model per se.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.