Bohannon’s Science Sting – playing devil’s advocate and proposing a solution

by adamgdunn

[Update: I realise that perhaps many of you are not going to have the same perspective about the Science Sting that I have purposefully taken here (hence the title). Apologies in advance.]

It took a journalist (albeit one with a PhD in molecular biology) to reveal the extent of the peer-review problems among predatory journals. Bohannon submitted fatally flawed and boringly bad articles to a set of open access journals that charge fees to publish. Of 255 submissions with results, 157 journals (62%) accepted the article. This did not come as a surprise to a lot of people who have been watching or interacting with this vast underworld of predatory publishing.

Simply, fee-charging predatory open access publishers make more money if they accept more articles. It’s not going to be good for business in the long-term (because of reputation problems) but it seems to be working quite well for a number of publishers right now. The need/desire for profits is also a big problem in subscription journals but often for very different reasons (where profit relies on denying access).

But is it working for them? There is limited evidence to suggest that business is good for predatory journals. Hindawi (previously listed as borderline predatory) apparently makes 52% profits, which is phenomenal compared to the already obscene 36% operating profits reported by Elsevier. The reason why business is so good is the direct consequence of the publish or perish mentality that pervades academia. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of students graduating with PhDs each year, the low overheads associated with starting a journal, and paid gold open access becomes an attractive business proposition for any shonky operator.

Response from those heavily invested in open access

Bohannon tells us that he talked about the work with “a small group of scientists who care deeply about open access”, and in the news article explained carefully that the growth of open access has multiplied the problem of predatory journals. This is because predatory publishers are much more likely to opt for a paid gold open access model. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. The problem is that people who care deeply about open access appear to have often interpreted the news article in a defensive way because of their particular perspectives on open access. There’s a whole bunch of responses to the article that come from the full spectrum of open access advocates and I have made a list below.

To play the devil’s advocate, here’s what they have often missed in their responses.

  • Bohannon correctly included the suggestion that targeting the low end of subscription journals could produce the same result and explicitly indicated that he did not examine them.
  • The article is directed at a particular subset of journals that charge fees and are listed on the DOAJ or on Beall’s list. The aims match the selection of journals and both are clear. At no point does Bohannon say that the chosen set represents open access generally.
  • It is an article about peer review. The fact that the targeted journals were all paid gold open access journals is important to note but that point has very little to do with the huge problems in peer review, which we all know are pervasive and a bigger problem in gold open access.

The results also show that Beall’s list does a reasonably good job of compiling the problems. It was nice to see that Beall was (mostly) vindicated in his identification of dodgy publishers. Over 80% of the journals on Beall’s list accepted the article after some kind of a review. For journals on DOAJ, the proportion was 45%. Much lower but still substantial.

It was unsurprising that Beall’s list produced the highest proportion of accepted articles and the highest proportion of missing peer review, that DOAJ produced fewer in each of the two. Glass-half-full types would have focused more heavily on this to show that there were in fact plenty of good open access journals that do charge fees, do undertake peer review or reject on first principles, and noted that even among a targeted group of journals accused of predatory behaviour, some still undertook peer review.

So what?

There are two important things we need to remember when interpreting the results of the Bohannon’s Science Sting. Firstly, predatory journals and open access journals are not synonymous but there are a lot of predatory journals that are open access. Bohannon did not conflate them in his report and explained his methods better than most journal articles I’ve seen recently. Secondly, if open access is to eventually replace the subscription model completely, then the people that are best placed to tackle predatory journals using open access models are the people that are already measuring, curating, listing and analysing open access. Houses in order, so to speak.

DOAJ should be the first to act – directly with the journals that accepted the paper, and then with the wider group of fee-charging journals. It doesn’t matter what proportion of subscription articles *would* have accepted the papers, the problem still exists no matter how much the “lack of a proper control” or “Science conspiracy against open access” arguments get thrown around to dilute the message.

Solving the problem

If you want a radical solution to the problem of bad peer review in predatory journals, there’s an obvious one that no one seems to be suggesting:

Remove profits from publishing entirely.

The method is simple. Only index and recognise articles that are published with non-profit and flat-rate subsidised (platinum open access) journals – like some of those published by the various scientific societies. Don’t pay journals for “how much” but for “how well”. If subscription journals and for-profit open access journals can’t be cited, indexed, or contribute to career progression, then the market for predatory journals disappears.

What others have been saying

Here is a list of other responses to Bohannon’s Science Sting.

1. Graham Steel: The Publishing “Sting”, the reaction, and the outcome

2. Åse Innes-Ker: A publishing sting, but what was stung?

3. Björn Brembs: Science Magazine Rejects Data, Publishes Anecdote

4. Claire Shaw: Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper

5. Peter Suber: New “sting” of weak open-access journals.

6. Curt Rice: What Science — and the Gonzo Scientist — got wrong: open access will make research better

7. Martin Eve: Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals  – and a longer version

8. Ernesto Priego: Who’s Afraid of Open Access?

9. Nigel Hawkes: Spoof research paper is accepted by 157 journals

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

11. Mike Taylor (SV-POW): John Bohannon’s peer-review sting against Science

12. Fabiana Kubke (makes good points about navigating open access): Science gone bad

13. Lenny Teytelman (interesting take & new analysis): What hurts science – rejection of good or acceptance of bad?

14. The Directory of Open Access Journals: DOAJ’s response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

15. Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association: OASPA’s response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

16. Jeroen Bosman (an excellent description of the issues): Science Mag sting of OA journals: is it about Open Access or about peer review?

17. John Hawks (interesting take): “Open access spam” and how journals sell scientific reputation

It is also nice to see some of them disclosing their particular set of conflicts in their discussions. I have none. And here are some more reactions on Twitter and a discussion hosted by Science: