For scientists working in academia, government or NGOs publishing scientific papers is central to establishing credibility as scientists, to winning the next grant or contract, and to career advancement. Of course publishing is also central to scientific advancement, but that is a different story from the one I am writing now.
The highest valued publications are in respected scientific journals. Scientist write their research, submit it to journals, and the journal subjects it to scientific and editorial review (“peer review”) and decides whether the paper is important enough and done well enough to merit publication in their journal. At least that is how it is supposed to work... Journals are not (usually) totally objective, benevolent, independent entities with the goal to spread knowledge for the good of humankind. They are (usually) owned by publishing companies with a goal to make a profit and at least not to lose money. The journals’ revenues are typical through subscriptions to individuals or libraries or through charging authors a publication fee (“open-access”) anywhere from one hundred to thousands of dollars, and then making the paper freely available online to anyone with internet access. So if we put a few of those points together – scientists benefit from publishing and journals can make money from publishing – we might suspect that there is potential for some... wrongdoing.
So, is that potential fulfilled? Do journals and authors cheat the system? Yes, they do. In fact, it appears to be the case for the majority of open-access journals. A new report in Science describes how an author sent a fake, very poor, paper to over 300 open-access journals and it was accepted for publication by over half of them. The paper intentionally included flagrant errors that even a cursory review would have noticed. That they were willing to publish the paper even though it was very poorly done shows that their motivation was profit, not scientific advancement.
Even before reading this report I was aware that this sort of thing happened, although I did not know the scale of it. So forearmed, surely I would not get caught in such a scheme...
For about seven years I have participated in research on the promotion of lupine bean in Ecuador with colleagues from INIAP, the national institute of agriculture research. We have conducted nutrient analysis of the bean and conducted interventions to increase production and consumption in Ecuadorian communities. We wrote a paper on this research and had intended to submit it for publication, but there were some weaknesses in the paper that I was uncomfortable with and couldn’t resolve and so in 2011 we posted it as a report on our website for posterity and left it at that.
Unbeknownst to me, my co-authors proceeded to try to get it published. This goes against a principle of scientific publishing, in that all the co-authors should be aware and approve of the submission. However, they do not have much experience with publishing, and were just enthusiastic about getting their results disseminated, and I don’t hold it against them. They submitted the paper to the open-access journal “Global Advanced Research Journal of Agricultural Science” (GARJAS), paid $500 to the journal, and with no real peer review or editorial review, it was published online. With great pleasure they sent me the link to the published paper - and it still had editing notes and typos, and a horrible abstract, probably written using Google translate without being reviewed by an English speaker.
Clearly this was a for-profit/not-for-science journals and they published for a fee, without thought to quality of the research or writing. So what should I do? It was already published and my co-authors thought it was a significant accomplishment. I could have demanded it be taken down, but that would have disappointed my co-authors. So I instead repaired the paper, including drafting a new abstract, and sent it to the journal, asking this improved version to be posted. It is up there now [link]. I do not intend on including this paper in my CV and if anyone I know stumbles across it and asks me about it, I will point them to this blog posting to tell my side of the story. It is no feather in my cap, but at least it is not embarrassing now.
The laudable goal of good open-access journals (and there are many! Not all are frauds) is to make papers available to all readers, including those without resources for subscriptions or library access. However it is more open to this sort of abuse for profit than subscription-based journals, which have to continually produce value for money for their subscribers. I don’t know what the solution is. In the short term, for HealthBridge, we will publish only in reputable journals. In the longer term, I guess it requires a larger effort to restructure scientific publishing and to revalue the way that scientist value is assessed, not merely valuing the number of papers published.
Post-script: In writing this posting, I browsed around the GARJAS website and stumbled on a paper that will actually be useful for some research we are planning on conservation agriculture and food security in Zimbabwe. So the final lesson is that not everything published by a for-profit/not-for-science journal is necessarily poor science. And the corollary is that not everything published in good journals (whether open-access or not) is automatically good science. We have to judge every paper on its own merits.
Post post-script: An earlier study describes the inconsistencies of peer review, in this case for psychology journals (described here).