Perspectives on Clinical and Translational Research

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Open Access – is it the devil?

Tim again –

The journal Science recently published an article titled “Who’s afraid of peer review?” which centers on the issues related to the open access publication system.  This post will focus on the review process and the results of the Science article.

Anyone who conducts research knows how the peer review process works.  Essentially it is a pain.  For research to be meaningful, it must be disseminated.  Unfortunately the only acceptable dissemination of research in academia and industry is through peer-review publication. Without dissemination, one cannot get grants and will likely not be promoted.  The downfall of this system is that there really are not that many journals.  This means that important research may not make it to publication just because there is nowhere to publish it.  All journals are inundated with research.  The editor screens the article and either rejects itimmediately, based on his or her view of the merits and fit with the journal, or sends it out to peer review.

The peer-review process is wrought with troubles.  One unfortunate issue with the peer review process is that it really is often reviewed by your peers – I mean your best friends.  When you submit an article, most journals require the names of reviewers.  This is because it is difficult to find people who are willing to spend their time to review the research for free.  However, when reviewers are suggested, it can be anyone – including friends who will look favorably on the work – after all, why would anyone suggest people who would not like their paper?  Why could this be an issue you ask?  Well, most journals do not have a blinded review, meaning that the reviewers know who wrote the article.  If they are a big name or a friend, human biases suggest the review would be more favorable.  Whether this truly is or isn’t the case has not been evaluated.

Regardless, to help alleviate these issues, an open access publication stream has recently exploded into the research world.  From the surface, open access is an excellent idea. First, it adds thousands of “journals” to the landscape, which could serve to limit the issue described above.  Second, it allows “published” articles to be available free of charge.  This helps investigators who do not have access to an academic library where most of the journals are readily available.  Unfortunately, the system has come with a price.  A steep price, in fact.  Since traditional journals owned by a publishing company make money through advertisements during publication, open access journals miss out on this income stream.  Therefore, they charge anywhere from $50 to several thousand dollars to review and/or “publish” an article (the word publish is in quotes because these journals are online and not truly published on paper as with a traditional journal).  These costs are often impossible to pay for any young investigator or an investigator from a developing nation.  However, the journal needs this income stream to properly edit and typeset the manuscript.

Unfortunately, the open access system has been nearly ruined by a number of bogus “journals” who are out to capitalize on the necessity of getting research into publication.  The Science article outlines this perfectly.  Essentially, the author under multiple pseudonyms, made up data and submitted clearly flawed research to 304 open access journals.  At the end of the day, over half accepted the manuscript without a clear peer review of the science in the article — even those considered “good”.

Open access is a necessity in today’s research climate.  Unfortunately, it has become more of a pyramid scheme of shady publishers exploiting researchers who are out to disseminate their research findings.  Hopefully this can be remedied, but significant damage has already been done.

Bohannon, J. Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? 4 October 2013, 342: 60-65.

Tim Wiemken • December 16, 2013


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