Thursday, June 18, 2009

fake Open Access publication

What can I say? This news from The Scientist was both so shocking yet so believable, that I feel a need to report it here, even though it has nothing to do with aquatic amniotes. I won't do this frequently, as I'd rather keep this focused on ideas and research, but this cannot be ignored. As the editor of an open access journal, PalArch's Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, an online, open-access peer-reviewed journal based in the Netherlands (that does not charge anything), I am more than a little interested in the world of open access journals.

Recently, a couple of graduate students from Cornell tested the peer review in the journal, The Open Information Science Journal, published by Bentham Publishers. They submitted a completely fake paper to the journal and without ever hearing any reviews, got a message back that their paper had been reviewed and was accepted. Then the journal asked for the processing fee of $800, which is when these students decided to withdraw the manuscript and avoid paying the money (they are graduate students, after all). This has loads of interesting implications, though I would urge caution in equating suspicion with wrongful or unethical acts. The workings of a journal can be complex and without further comment from the journal in question, I would argue that it is best to assume an error occurred until further information comes out.

Though I think this is either an anomaly from the normal workings of this journal, or only a problem within this journal alone, it does stimulate a question that I am sure is one many people's minds when one is faced with the page charges of many journals, including open access ones. Mainly, the notion of paying to publish a paper suspiciously sounds like a business practice that would work in opposition to editorial inclinations to reject papers, or even delay publications. From a purely business standpoint, when worries of reputation are excluded, it makes more sense to do less work for each paper, which could/should result in a reduced rigor of peer review. I doubt that is occurring with many of our esteemed open access journals, primarily because of the ethics on which they were started, but as open access journals become more common and numerous, the "pay-to-play" option should cause us all to be cautious. This problem is not new, and the idea of paying to publish papers in some journals, or even simply the politics of publishing in some high-profile journals, should have always caused us to wonder about how peer review varies from journal to journal, and even editor to editor. Publishing, just like science, is a human endeavor fraught with error and often bias. But that should encourage caution and discussion and NOT cause us to stop progress in a stalemate of suspicion.

For more on this story, see the report by The

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