It’s taken me a little while to be able to write a response to the article “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Every time I sit down to write something, I begin coherently and slowly devolve into angry writing. The article asks, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” and then proceeds to only talk about the peer review, or lack thereof, in open access journals. Because the open access that the article portrays is shoddy and corrupt and seemingly should present no major threat to the vaunted, subscriber-based journals. Somebody should let PLoS ONE know.

The major, fundamental difference is who can access the articles and for how much. The decision about what makes it into which journal is not based on–however much scientists want to believe it is–based on the quality of the science. Nature and Science (where this particular article appeared) have the highest retraction rates of any journal. Knowing that, it’s hard to argue that they publish The Best Science. No, they try to publish good science, but they are also concerned with the sex appeal of the article; they only want the high impact science. So that begs the question: What happens to scientifically solid work that the editors don’t think is sexy enough? Maybe the hypothesis was wrong, or the results were interesting but not game changing, or it’s a less well-known field. Well, in that case, it goes to lower impact journals, maybe along with some stuff that wasn’t as well-done. What if there was an alternative? A journal that only accepts stuff based on scientific merit, publishes it, and then leaves it up to readers to decide whether it gets more or less views. Well it exists: all the PLoS journals.

When I hear people talk about “open access” they’re usually talking about three phenomena–alternatives to subscriber-based journals that seek to remove some of editorializing in paper selection; those subscriber articles that will automatically go open access if they were funded by the US or the UK; and, what this article deals with, a lax, grey market designed to get people publications.

So back to the article itself. It commits some of the same sins that we monitor scientists for:

1) Conflict of interest. Did anyone have a problem with the fact that this was published by a subscriber-based journal with skin in the game (so to speak)?

2) Or, how the article targets potentially notorious open access journals without including a sample set of subscriber journals? (No controls? that’s just bad science.)

Stop with the outrage about author fees–it’s not like publishing in PNAS is free. Servers cost money and current article fees pay to keep all the older articles accessible.

My biggest issue, and perhaps the hardest to explain, are some of the assumptions that the author made. If were were talking about a different field, the term we use would be “microaggression.” A lot of detail was given to the description of the author’s “experimental” set up–how he engineered the names of the authors to look authentically African, how he purposely wrote in poor or grammatically incorrect English, how he included blatantly incorrect data and interpretation, to the point of approaching misconduct. I fully understand wanting to test the limits of whatever review these journals were purporting to offer and how including some factual and grammatical errors would check to see if anybody was reading whatsoever. But why did he, an Oxford-educated white dude feel the need to play up the ‘otherness’ of his fake scientists? Did he think that some of these open access journals would blatantly target scientist from developing nations? What would have happened if he submitted with a different name? I just think it’s really problematic to implicitly tie poor work with scientists from developing nations, even if he wasn’t consciously doing that.

There are plenty of problems in science, but I don’t think open access is one of them. I think the emphasis on “publishable results” (read: positive) and peer review is a much bigger part of the problem. A recent release by Elsevier editors estimated that around 10% of the papers they receive have some evidence of misconduct. That’s a staggering number. So yes, there’s obviously problems in science publication, but I don’t think these open access journals are the cause, although they are perhaps a symptom.

EDIT: A lot of people have been talking about this. One of my favorite responses can be found here, although I hesitate to pile on over the Ar DNA thing:  http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439

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