OK this isn t exactly what happened. I didn t actually write the paper. Far more frighteningly, it was a real paper that contained all of the flaws described above that was actually accepted, and ultimately published, by Science. I am dredging the arsenic DNA story up again, because today s Science contains a by reporter John Bohannon describing a sting he conducted into the peer review practices of open access journals. He created a deeply flawed paper about molecules from lichens that inhibit the growth of cancer cells, submitted it to 859 open access journals under assumed names, and recorded what happened. Of the 755 journals that rendered decisions, 657 accepted the paper, most with no discernible sign of having actually carried out peer review. ( PLOS ONE, rejected the paper, and was one of the few to flag its ethical flaws). The story is an interesting exploration of the ways peer review is, and isn t, implemented in today s biomedical publishing industry.
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Sadly, but predictably, Science spins this as a problem with open access. And the real problem isn t that some fly-by-night publishers hoping to make a quick buck aren t even doing peer review (although that is a problem). They fleece the research community of billions of dollars every year by convincing them of something manifestly false that their journals and their peer review process are an essential part of science, and that we need them to filter out the good science and the good scientists from the bad. Like all good grifters playing the long con, they get us to believe they are doing something good for us something we need. While they pocket our billions, with elegant sleight of hand, then get us to ignore the fact that crappy papers routinely get into high-profile journals simply because they deal with sexy topics.
Every time they publish because it is sexy, and not because it is right, science is distorted. It distorts research. It distorts funding. And it often distorts public policy. To suggest as Science (though not Bohannon) are trying to do that the problem with scientific publishing is that open access enables internet scamming is like saying that the problem with the international finance system is that it enables Nigerian wire transfer scams.
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There are deep problems with science publishing. But the way to fix this is not to curtain open access publishing. It is to fix peer review. First, and foremost, we need to get past the antiquated idea that the singular act of publication or publication in a particular journal should signal for all eternity that a paper is valid, let alone important. Even when people take peer review seriously, it is still just represents the views of 7 or 8 people at a fixed point in time.
To invest the judgment of these people with so much meaning is nuts. And its far worse when the process is distorted as it so often is by the desire to publish sexy papers, or to publish more papers, or because the wrong reviewers were selected, or because they were just too busy to do a good job. If we had, instead, a system where the review process was transparent and persisted for the useful life of a work (as I ve written about ), none of the flaws exposed in Bohannon s piece would matter. It is interesting to see the motivation behind the Arsenic DNA paper. Thank you for sharing.
My doctoral research, in sociology, is on journal peer review. Thought you might be interested in a sociological perspective on the dynamics you (and responses to your blog) outline: Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study (Gaudet, 7569)How pre-publication journal peer review (re)produces ignorance at scientific and medical journals: a case study (Gaudet, 7569)I'm a biologist at UC Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I work primarily on flies, and my research encompases evolution, development, genetics, genomics, chemical ecology and behavior.
I am a strong proponent of open science, and a co-founder of the. And most importantly, I am a Red Sox fan.