Predatory Open Access: Part 2 – Peer Review in OA and Ethics of "Sting Op Research"

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Ever since the Science article about a sting operation to reveal the murky business that goes on in the name of Open Access journals came out, the academic world has been thrown into a tizzy. I decided to do a series of posts exploring the issue of predatory open access and the issues surrounding them. The first post in this series can be found here: Predatory Open Access: Part I – A Sting Op and Indictment of the OA Model. In the first post I reflected on the article and its fall outs.

In the present article I try to talk about the issue of peer review in OA journals and whether it was an ethical breach on behalf of the Science sting operation authors to carry out a falsified study.

Peer Review in Open Access Journals:

Before I even start to put out my views on this issue, I shall take an excerpt from Peter Suber’s erstwhile Open Access blog, which highlights all the issues regarding peer review in OA Journals:

OA is compatible with peer review, and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance.

  • Peer review does not depend on the price or medium of a journal. Nor does the value, rigor, or integrity of peer review.

  • One reason we know that peer review at OA journals can be as rigorous and honest as peer review in conventional journals is that it can use the same procedures, the same standards, and even the same people (editors and referees) as conventional journals.

  • Conventional publishers sometimes object that one common funding model for OA journals (charging fees to authors of accepted articles or their sponsors) compromises peer review. I’ve answered this objection at length elsewhere (12).

  • OA journals can use traditional forms of peer review or they can use innovative new forms that take advantage of the new medium and the interactive network joining scholars to one another. However, removing access barriers and reforming peer review are independent projects. OA is compatible with every kind of peer review and doesn’t presuppose any particular model.

  • The reverse is not true, however. Some emerging models of peer review presuppose OA, for example models of “open review” in which submitted manuscripts are made OA (before or after some in-house review) and then reviewed by the research community. Open review requires OA but OA does not require open review.

  • In most disciplines and most fields the editors and referees who perform peer review donate their labor, just like the authors. Where they are paid, OA to the resulting articles is still possible; it merely requires a larger subsidy than otherwise.

  • Despite the fact that those exercising editorial judgment usually donate their labor, performing peer review still has costs –distributing files to referees, monitoring who has what, tracking progress, nagging dawdlers, collecting comments and sharing them with the right people, facilitating communication, distinguishing versions, collecting data, and so on. Increasingly these non-editorial tasks are being automated by software, including free and open-source software

The objection that is usually placed is that the author-payment model will corrupt the peer review system as the journal will try to accept and publish as many articles as possible in order to boost revenues. With most of the open access journals being published online, the issue of space and page constraints are also gone. These two come together, and bolster the fear that open access model is a faltering one, a get rich quick scheme, an internet-based money-for-academic-fame game.

However, as Peter Suber has pointed out somewhere else, this issue does not really hold much water. The journals that seek to publish anything and everything to keep up their revenues, will eventually become black listed in the academic circles because of their poor quality control; and submissions will decrease, causing loss of articles and revenues. While one may argue that some fly-by-night journals may just be doing this very thing in order to make a quick buck off the scholarly publishing market and then vanish from the mainstream, to be relegated to B-grade levels, scrounging off the bottom (or maybe even disappear altogether!). That is not a weakness in the OA model; just as industry sponsored paper pushing is not a weakness (although it is a frowned-upon practice) in traditional, pay-walled journals. In any model there are good journals and bad ones. This is just a reflection of the same. If the research quality is too poor to be published, then getting them into poorer, less visible journals is often the only way out. But other than that, the model does not actively promote the process of fraudulent resume boosting any more than some traditional journals do in lieu of alleged advertisement or reprint buying businesses.

On a more personal note, there was a time when I would get embroiled into arguments readily in order to defend the honor of OA journals, but since I got burned myself, I have become a bit more wary. There are a lot of journals which are just trying to pinch our bucks, but there are also a number of others that are trying to eke out, in an honest and integrated manner, a publishing industry of, for and by the scholars. Even new journals (let us take the examples of F1000 or The PeerJ, which, admittedly, are innovations on the OA Model, but are new OA journals nonetheless) have the need to prove their quality in order to keep the submissions flowing. While there is some substance in the argument that with such massive research efforts going on all over the world, any player will find someone or the other to con, yet, it is not a death knell for the OA model!

Digressing a bit from that issue, I shall spend a few more words on the disruptive innovation that has been introduced in the world of open access journals by Pete Binfield and his team in the form of PeerJ. For a single, once-in-a-lifetime payment of 99$ they allow authors to publish one paper every year (there are other variants and plans of pricing as well), with the rider that the author(s) agree to review for papers submitted to the journal as a commitment to further the cause of the research community involved with the journal as a whole. This is a major departure, at least monetarily speaking, from the usual norm of paying in four digit figures for every accepted article in an open access journal. And, in fact, the single payment is also so minimal, that even researchers from the developing world can afford to make the cut.

Did Science breach Academic Integrity?

One of the assumptions that the research community has to make is that the researcher who has submitted an article to a journal has done the work with complete sincerity and scientific integrity. One may claim that it is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, for a journal to decide whether or not there has been breach of scientific integrity in the execution of a research project that culminates into the submitted article. It took the scientific community almost a decade to come out and identify the fraud that was propagated by Wakefield regarding the MMR-Autism link (and that was when there were so many red flags all over the place). A journal of the standing of The Lancet got reeled in my his misdemeanors. The question naturally arises, that when Science instigated this sting operation, did it end up playing on the issue of scientific and academic integrity? Did the journals, assuming the scientific process to have been intact, get reeled in?

I, for one, do not buy this story. I think there can be bad research and poor articles resulting from honest research work, and just like this paper, they will have unsound scientific premise holding things together. Whether the process of integrity was breached or not is not even an issue here. The issue is, bad science should always get rejected, irrespective of the intent behind it. If this paper was produced by an honest (but gullible) scientist, and the journals accepted them anyways, even then, it would be a strong indictment of the peer review process the journals employed.

This is a straw man argument behind which the journals, whose masquerades have been snatched, try to hide behind.

However, one question that does raise its head is: whether the Science people had some conflicts of interest in shaming the open access world as such. It is an uncomfortable and inconvenient question, which is probably based on nothing but my innate suspicious and skeptic nature, and has no incriminating answer as such; but is one that I thought should be raised in light of the current discussion. The fact that it has a pay-for-access model and may have been endangered (though that is considerably unlikely given the monumental stature of the journal itself and the AAAS, in general) by the rise of the open access revolution, may be construed by some (NOT me) to be an instrumental factor. However, in all honesty, this allegation could be nothing more than mere speculation, since the authors do mention the background story that stirred up their stings. The story of a researcher who was duped out of 90$ by some fly-by-night journal that agreed to publish her work set off the whole thing in motion is not an uncommon one and is indeed a rather common predation of monetary and intellectual rights by publication charlatans.

In the next and final instalment of this series of posts, I shall talk about the fact that the Science effort, though innovative, was not by far the first of its kind. In fact, there have been several such efforts in the past, trying to catch peer review systems unawares and trying to pull the wool over the eyes in order to prove something or the other does not work. Stay tuned for the third and final segment of the series in order to know about the rich tradition of sting op researchers, that begun with William Osler and his case report on the exotic penis captivus published under his pseudonym Egerton Yorick Davies IV.

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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