About Science's open access “sting”

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John Bohannon wrote a bogus scientific paper and submitted versions of it to 304 open-access journals. More than half accepted it, flaws and all, Bohannon reports in Science. Discussion: Ivan Oransky notes that some of the journals are owned by major publishers like Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer. Also, John Hawks of PLOS, which rejected the paper; Phil Davis; Curt Rice.

October 2, 2015


vcostello's picture

I manage blogs for the open access publisher PLOS, and, as you may know, PLOS editors/reviewers were not taken in by the fake study. But, as someone working in the Open Access community, and speaking only for myself here, there are many problems with this so-called "sting" I would like to address with my fellow science writers.

• John Bohannon acknowledges that the sting was not a controlled study, as it did not include closed access journals, yet the overall point of the piece is that the source of the quality control problem in peer reviewed science journals is Open Access and its business model,

• The article acknowledges the lack of control in not analyzing subscription journals but says that time/resources were limited. Before making such a sweeping statement about Open Access journals, wouldn't the additional time have been merited?

• Not all the journals that accepted the article were listed in the article.

In addition to flaws in the sting and Bohannon's article, the accompanying Science editorials are weak – e.g. the editor in chief of Science accepts the premise of the article as though it were a properly conducted study. She calls on more rigorous practices of peer review, yet provides no solution. The other editorial also notes weaknesses in peer review and the problems with publishing negative results, but also no real way forward.

I agree with the position of many scientists and science writers objecting to this sting that the issues raised by the Science article are not about OA journals: they are about science and ethical publishing and the review processes used throughout the industry. To focus on OA, only distracts from the larger issues.

As science jounalists, we should also take those writers and media orgs to task that accept this sting story more or less unquestioningly, or at the very least without proper context...here's a perfect example from NPR Morning Edition on Oct 5 ; NPR - http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=229103215

Recommended reading • Michael Eisen (PLOS cofounder): " I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals " http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439

Thanks, Victoria vcostello@plos.org

wayt's picture

I agree with Victoria's points. Reading Bohannon's piece really bothered me for several reasons:

1) Bohannon engaged in active deception. This violates a long-held tenet in journalism and should not pass without comment about the corrosive effect it can have on how the scientific community engages with science writers.

2) Science has an obvious conflict of interest in doing a story like this that goes completely unmentioned in Bohannon’s piece. Open access journals are a huge competitive threat to the business of subscription-supported journals like Science. It seems suspicious that Bohannon ran this social experiment of his with no control—he didn’t submit the fictitious paper to any subscription-supported journals to see whether the acceptance rate differed substantially. There is a speculation toward the end of the piece that “low-tier” sub-supported journals may not have performed better, but it would not have been hard for him to test that proposition and to include even well-respected subscription journals (as he did PLOS ONE). I don’t question his findings, but was the motivation to just smear the competition? The truth is that a lot of high-cost journals publish obvious crap all the time.

3) Bohannon never answers the “so what?” question, which he could have done easily by gathering and analyzing the impact factors of the targeted journals. There has always been a gray literature of bogus journals that are never read and almost never cited. The institutions of science pay them no mind, and—aside from the relatively small fees they extract from their victims—they don’t substantially slow the process of research (except perhaps in the poorest parts of the world). Were the target journals in this sting all part of the gray literature, or are some of them actually influential, as reflected by an impact factor well above 0?

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