“Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

Diane Sun | Director of Communications

Part two of our three-part series on ethics in scientific research.

Researchers are not the only ones guilty of unethical behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, publishers themselves are not exempt from acting disreputably. Within the last decade, a new model of scientific publishing has emerged to compete with the traditional subscription model.

Open access journals were created with the goal of making make scientific research available to the public and greatly benefited researchers, but a subset of open access journals exploit researchers for a profit. These so called “predatory journals” charge authors – usually researchers or students from non-Western countries – hundreds or thousands of dollars to have their paper published.

These journals spam legitimate professors with requests to submit articles and list them as peer reviewers without permission. Authors pay large amounts of money to be published in a journal with no real impact and sign away the rights, so they cannot take their paper elsewhere.

There is a marked lack of peer review among predatory journals as well, leading to the dissemination of bad science. Why bother vetting, when the more papers you publish, the more revenue you earn? The International Journal of Advanced Computing Technology once offered to publish a paper that entirely consisted of the phrase “Get me off your [expletive] mailing list” repeated hundreds of times.

In 2013, John Bohannon, contributor to Nature, tested the peer review process of these journals by submitting a plausible but “boringly bad,” randomly generated paper about the use of a molecule to inhibit cancer cell growth. His paper included glaring methodological errors like failing to properly utilize a control group and including data points that contradict claims in the text. 60% of open source journals accepted his paper for publication. Even journals with unrelated to his paper’s field like the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction and the Journal of Nephrology and Renal Transplantation offered to publish his paper.

And these predatory journals are not that easy identified. Some are obviously run by shady trenchcoat-wearing guys lurking in a back alley, but journals owned by the prominent publishers Sage and Elsevier accepted Bohannon’s fake cancer article for publication.

Predatory journals are allowed to flourish because of the “publish or perish” mentality that incentivizes researchers to publish quickly and in greater amounts. This system values quantity over quality, rapidly increasing the demand for venues to publish.  Accordingly, Jeffery Bealle, professor at the University of Colorado, maintains a list of predatory journals and has seen its size grow exponentially, from 18 publishers in 2011 to 693 publishers as of this year.

Bohannon’s “sting operation” has since set off a debate in the academic community about publication standards. Some see it as an attack on the open access publishing model, while others criticized the article for ironically, not being subjected to peer review itself.

In fact, this problem is not limited to the relatively new open access model. David Roos of the University of Pennsylvania “strongly [suspects Bohannon] would get the same result” if he sent his fake cancer study to traditional subscription journals. This is likely the case, as in 2014, Springer and IEEE announced they were retracting 120 articles that were revealed to be created by SCIgen, a joke computer science paper generator created by two MIT students.

Academia is ultimately a self-policing field. Peer reviewers are gatekeepers that ensure only methodologically sound and novel papers are disseminated in scholarly journals. Journals themselves should not be profit-making endeavors, but platforms for recognizing good research and sharing information with the public at large. As journals rapidly experiment with new models of publication, student researchers should remain aware of the implications of these new models on their own academic goals.

You can read Bohannon’s original article in Science here. Featured photo from ResearchInspiration.com.

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