Fallout from John Bohannon’s “Who’s afraid of peer review”

Written by: Ian Dworkin

Primary Source: Genes Gone Wild

As many many scientists, librarians and concerned folk who are interested in scientific publishing and the state of peer review are aware, the whole ‘verse’ was talking about the “news feature” in Science by John Bohannon entitled “Who’s afraid of peer review?”.

The basics of the article was a year long “sting” operation on a “select” group of journals (that happened to be open access.. more on this in a second) focusing in part on predatory/vanity journals. That is some of the journals had the “air” of a real science journal, but in fact would publish the paper (?any paper?) for a fee. Basically Bohannon generated a set of faux scientific articles that at a first (and superficial) glance appeared to represent a serious study, but upon even modest examination it would be clear to the reader (i.e. reviewers and editors for the journal) that the experimental methodology was so deeply flawed that the results were essentially meaningless.

Bohannon reported that a large number of the journals he submitted to accepted this article, clearly demonstrating insufficient (or non-existent peer review). This and the head line has apparently lead to a large amount of popular press, and many interviews (I only managed to catch the NPR one I am afraid).

However, this sting immediately generated a great deal of criticism both for the way it was carried out, and more importantly the way the results were interpreted. First and foremost (to many) that ALL of the journals that were used were open access, and thus no control group for journals with the “traditional” subscription based models (where libraries pay for subscription to the journals). In addition, the journals were sieved to over-represent the shadiest predatory journals. That is it did not represent a random sample of open access journals. One thing that really pissed many people off (in particular among advocated of open access journals, but even beyond this group) that Science (A very traditional subscription based journal) used the summary headline: “A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals.”, clearly implying that there was something fundamentally wrong with open access journals. There are a large number of really useful critiques of the article by Bohannon including ones by Michael Eisen, The Martinez-Arias lab, Lenny Teytelman, Peter Suber, Adam Gunn (including a list of other blogs and comments about it at the end). There is another list of responses found here as well.  Several folks also suggested that some open access advocates were getting overly upset, as the sting was meant to focus on just the predatory journals. Read the summary line from the article highlighted in italics above, as well as the article and decide for yourself. I also suggest looking at some of the comment threads as Bohannon does join in on the comments Suber’s post, and many of the “big” players are in on the discussion.

A number of folks (including myself) were also very frustrated with how Science (the magazine) presented this (and not just for the summary line). Making the “sting” appear to be scientifically rigorous in its methods, but then turning around and saying this is just a “news” piece whenever any methodological criticism is discussed. For instance, when readers commented about both the lack of peer review and the biased sampling of journals used for the “sting” operation for Bohannon’s article, this was a response by John Travis (managing editor of News for Science magazine):

I was most interested in the fact Science (the journal) had an online panel consisting of Bohannon, Eisen and David Roos (as well as Jon Cohen Moderating) to discuss these issues. Much of it (especially in the first half hour) is worth watching, I think it is important to point out that Bohannon suggests he did not realize how his use of only OA journals as part of the sting operation would be viewed. He suggests that he meant this as largely a sting of the predatory journals, and that if he did it again he would have included the subscription based journals as a control group. You can watch it and decide for yourself.

The panelists also brought up two other important points that seem to not get discussed as much in the context of open access vs. subscription models for paying for publication or for peer review.

First, many subscription based journals (including Science) have page charges and/or figure charges that the author of the manuscript pays to the journals. As discussed among the panelists (and I have personal experience with paying for publication of my own research), these tend to be in the same ballpark as for the publication of open access papers. Thus the “charge” that the financial model for publication for OA journals would lead to more papers being accepted is true for many of the subscription journals as well (in particular for journals that are entirely online).

Second (and the useful point to come out of Bohannon’s piece) is that there are clear problems with peer review being done sufficiently well. One suggestion that was made by both Eisen and Roos (and has been suggested many times before) is that the reviews provided by the peer referees of the manuscript and the editor could be published alongside (or as supplemental data on figshare) the accepted manuscript, so that all interested readers can assess the extent to which peer review was conducted. Indeed there are a few journals which already do this such as PeerJ, Embo J, ELife, F1000 Research, Biology Direct and some other BMC-series (see here for an interesting example), Molecular Systems Biology, Copernicus Journals. Thanks to folks on twitter for helping me put together this list!

This latter point (providing the reviews alongside published papers) seems to be so trivial to accomplish, and the reviewers names could easily remain anonymous (or they could provide their names providing a degree of academic credit and credibility to the scientific community) if so desired. So why has this not happened for all scientific journals?  I am quite curious about whether there are any reasons NOT to provide such reviews?

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Ian Dworkin
Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology at Michigan State University. Faculty member in the Program in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behaviour (EEBB). MSU Faculty member in the BEACON center for the study of Evolution in action.