Open access and the Science “sting”

Open Letter to the Frontiers Editorial Boards

On October 4, Science magazine published a news item describing the submission of a fake research article to more than 250 open-access journals, resulting in 60% of journals accepting the article after virtually no peer review. The study aimed at representing a “first global snapshot of peer review across open-access”:

The fake article was also submitted to Frontiers. In our case, the Specialty Chief Editor of the relevant section rejected the article the same day it was submitted following an initial scan for content, exactly in keeping with the high-quality control that Frontiers has put in place.

Indeed, one of the reasons why Frontiers was founded was to fix the many problems of traditional peer review, which we achieve by:

1. Appointing only top-notch researchers and clinicians to our boards to ensure quality;

2. Introducing standardized review questionnaires that enforce in-depth and rigorous reviews;

3. Creating the interactive “Review Forum” which opens a direct dialogue between authors, reviewers and editors, allowing not only the editor, but also the reviewers to see and participate in each other’s reviews;

4. Requiring reviewers and editor to reach a consensus and take a unanimous decision;

5. Publishing the names of the reviewers and editor on the accepted articles, to make the process not only constructive, but also thorough and accountable. Nobody wants to be associated with a low-quality paper.

Research knowledge needs to be freely available to the world to allow the flow of new discoveries and technologies – the very foundations of modern societies. At Frontiers, we believe that modern scholarly publishing requires even more than just fixing peer review. Most generally, scientific research should be judged at the article or author level, rather than via the impact of a journal; indeed, we continue to develop tools for the democratic evaluation of outstanding research, which we do with “article impact” metrics and the unique Frontiers tiering system. Finally, we accelerate the effective and targeted dissemination of research output with networking technologies, which have been shown to increase the reach of Frontiers articles by over 70%.

Here at Frontiers we applaud solid studies to assess different publishing models – however, the Science study was not one of these. There are multiple problems with the Science study, but just to mention a few:

Inherent bias: the Science reporter writes that his intention was to conduct an experiment across “the entire open-access world,” which he clearly failed to achieve. His list of targeted journals is in fact based largely on a highly controversial list of so-called “predatory” publishers run by a librarian, a list that is not – nor intended to be – representative of the open-access publishing industry. As a result, the list of targeted journals is heavily skewed towards a sub-set of low-quality publishers whose only unifying characteristic is that they have been (rightly or wrongly) identified as being “exploitative”.

Lack of control group: to assess peer-review in open-access journals would require including a control group in any rigorous study. As such, the lack of any control group of subscription-based journals does not permit an informed comparison. Frontiers came into life to address the severe problems with peer-review in scholarly publishing.

Lack of context: four of the largest open-access publishers, including Frontiers, responsible for the lion’s share of open-access articles published, all rejected the bogus article. This only goes to show that most articles in the industry are subject to sound peer-review processes. By failing to note that the reputable, high-volume publishers rejected the fake article, the news article unfairly gives the impression that 60% of the industry output has flawed processes.

Unfortunately, instead of conducting a solid scientific study to engage in constructive debate on peer-review within the publishing industry, the Science article takes a more sensationalist journalistic approach. In light of all this, we are concerned that the Science study has done a great dis-service to the open-access movement, and we are far from alone on this account (see at the bottom of this post for further reading).

Over the past 6 years, we have worked hard together with thousands of scientists and physicians to build a responsible and sustainable open-access journal series. We have achieved this quality thanks to their commitment and involvement. We assure all Frontiers supporters that our focus remains, as always, to continue working closely with you to improve peer review and to ensure that the responsibility for scientific publishing remains in the hands of active researchers like you.

Thanks for being part of the Frontiers family.

Costanza Zucca, Editorial Director

Fred Fenter, Executive Editor

Worth reading:

Martin Eve – “What’s “open” got to do with it?”

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

Peter Suber – New “sting” of weak open-access journals

Mike Taylor – John Bohannon’s peer-review sting against Science

Scholarly Kitchen – Open Access “Sting” Reveals Deception, Missed Opportunities

Bjoern Brembs – Science Magazine Rejects Data, Publishes Anecdote

Gunther Eysenbach – Unscientific spoof paper accepted by 157 “black sheep” open access journals – but the Bohannon study has severe flaws itself

The Guardian – Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper

The Faculty Lounge – The Troubled Peer Review System, the Open Access Wars, & the Blurry Line Between Human Subjects Research & Investigative Journalism

The Economist – Science’s Sokal moment

Curt Rice – Open access publishing hoax: what Science magazine got wrong

The Verge – Sham science: fake research paper accepted by over 100 journals

NPR – Some Online Journals Will Publish Fake Science, For A Fee

Zen Faulkes – Open access or vanity press, the Science “sting” edition

Ernesto Preigo – Who’s Afraid of Open Access?

Sense About Science – Quick thoughts on Science magazine ‘sting’ on peer review 

OASPA – OASPA’s response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

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