Open Access Sting Reveals Peer Review Problems

Science Magazine recently wrote a completely bogus article about lichen extracts that combat cancer, came up with some fake scientist names, gave them some made up credentials, and then submitted the lot of it to 300 open access journals. Though many of the journals boasted peer review boards with prestigious-sounding names and titles, the article was accepted by over half of the journals. Some of the journals did ask for edits, but the authors claim the paper was so bad that mere editing would not have fixed the fatal flaws of the research, methods, data, and conclusions.

It gets worse. According to the authors:
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.

So from whence did this problem arise? Is it merely the case that hucksters realized that academic publishing was a good scam, or is there a more nuanced take on it? According to Bauerlein, Grody, McKelvey, and Trimble’s recent We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research, greater access to publishing shares no small culpability. They suggest that increased access serves only to obscure truly brilliant work. Because so much work –much of it redundant, dim, or otherwise inconsequential– is published now, it is easy to miss the good stuff! The authors state that the amount of research makes it impossible to ensure that it is all accurate:

The surest guarantee of integrity, peer review, falls under a debilitating crush of findings, for peer review can handle only so much material without breaking down. More isn’t better. At some point, quality gives way to quantity (Par. 15).

I blogged here about the problem of open source journals demanding payment for publication, and there I suggested that students be told to use library databases instead of Google Scholar and the open internet. Because a new wrinkle has been added, I redouble my efforts here. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell your students to use the library databases.

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