Monday, October 07, 2013

Science's Misguided War on Open Access

Science in the title refers to this journal.

A journalist at Science sent a bogus article to a bunch of journals and found -- surprise, surprise -- that more than half of them accepted it for publication.

Yeah, peer review at a lot of journals is a joke. What's new?

What's new is that Science chose to spin its experiment as showing the utter badness of the very concept of open access journals.

How did it come to this conclusion? By making a conscious decision to target only open access journals in its experiment.

I guess only a journal with the stature of Science can accept a study with such a strong conclusion without using a control group!

More importantly, coming from a journal that has had some serious peer review problems -- the who's-who of fraudsters, from Jan Hendrik Schön to Hwang Woo Suk to Diederik Stapel, have exploited its weakness for Sexy Science -- this spin is deeply dishonest. And people are calling it out on it. [also see the links in this   post].

I think Michael Eisen owns the internet this week with these opening paragraphs:

I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals

In 2011, after having read several really bad papers in the journal Science, I decided to explore just how slipshod their peer-review process is. I knew that their business depends on publishing “sexy” papers. So I created a manuscript that claimed something extraordinary - that I’d discovered a species of bacteria that uses arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus. But I made the science so egregiously bad that no competent peer reviewer would accept it. The approach was deeply flawed – there were poor or absent controls in every figure. I used ludicrously elaborate experiments where simple ones would have done. And I failed to include a simple, obvious experiment that would have definitively shown that arsenic was really in the bacteria’s DNA. I then submitted the paper to Science, punching up the impact the work would have on our understanding of extraterrestrials and the origins of life on Earth in the cover letter. And what do you know? They accepted it!

My sting exposed the seedy underside of “subscription-based” scholarly publishing, where some journals routinely lower their standards – in this case by sending the paper to reviewers they knew would be sympathetic - in order to pump up their impact factor and increase subscription revenue. Maybe there are journals out there who do subscription-based publishing right – but my experience should serve as a warning to people thinking about submitting their work to Science and other journals like it.


  1. Santosh Sali said...

    After this , you may want to blog on this (Featured in today's ) Mid-day ... Worth talking more as again this is referring to Indian mediocre standards about Academic Publishing ...