Hoax highlights the pitfalls and perils of open access publishing

The demand for open access resulted in an explosion of refereed journals, free to anyone that wanted to view them. h_pampel/Flickr

Open access has become the catch-cry of academic science, demanding all research be freely available to anyone. But it leaves open the question of how publishers are to make money.

Traditionally, libraries subscribed to print versions of individual journals. But as the world turned digital, publishers bundled together very expensive, password-protected e-versions of their journals in packages.

The demand for open access resulted in an explosion of refereed journals, free to anyone that wanted to view them. Some funded their production costs through their own institutions or scholarly organisation.

But many passed these costs on to the author or the author’s funding body; once accepted, a fee is required for the research to be published.

But flaws in this model are now becoming apparent.

A serious spoof

Science, the widely respected magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently commissioned a sting operation aimed at revealing serious abuses within the world of open access publishing.

John Bohannon, a journalist and visiting scholar at Harvard University, concocted a set of fake African personas located in a series of invented African institutions, and produced a paper filled to the brim with preposterous science.

“Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed,” he commented, “that the results are meaningless.”

Over a period of ten months, computer-generated variants of the paper were sent to 304 open access journals. By the time Bohannon published an article about the sting, 157 journals had accepted the paper, and 98 had rejected it.

“The data,” he dramatically concluded, “reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”

This is the flipside of the “academic spring” announced loudly by The Guardian in 2012.

Springtime comes

The “academic spring” was triggered by the University of Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers, who, fed up with the perceived abuses of the academic publishing industry, set up “The Cost of Knowledge” boycott. The initiative targeted the publisher Elsevier as an example of the worst elements of academic publishing.

Gowers’ campaign raised several objections to the behaviour of academic journal publishers. The most serious of these was that the vast majority of scientific research festered behind pay-walls, unavailable to the wider public who had paid for the research through their taxes.

Notwithstanding this boycott, the pressure to make scientific research available to everyone had been building for at least a decade.

Landmark statements such the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2001), the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003), and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003), highlighted the growing demand for open access.

And it was having some success. Open access was slowly being realised by organisations such as BioMed, PubMed, and Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology.

Pressure for open access steadily built until governmental funding bodies such as the UK’s Medical Research Council (2006) and the USA’s National Institutes of Health (2008) threw their not insubstantial weight behind the demands.

But once The Guardian swung behind Gowers’ campaign, the movement appeared unstoppable.

Very quickly the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest private funding body, demanded that all research funded by them should be accessible, that is, published in open access journals.

Currently, governments across the world are promoting open access for state-funded research, which in Europe and Australia includes any research undertaken at universities. Meanwhile, traditional publishers, such as Elsevier, have been working hard to accommodate and contain the movement.

The dark side

Few people have challenged the premises behind the argument for open access, not least because it is a no-brainer that publicly-funded research should be accessible to all, with as few barriers as possible.

And ventures such as PLoS have demonstrated that the author-pays model can be highly profitable, but not at the cost of quality of research.

But alongside PLoS, a new class of open access publisher has emerged. Bearing all the paraphernalia of a standard online publisher, complete with flashy looking websites, eminent editorial boards, and articles available for download by all, these operations have sought to exploit the profit-making potential of the author-pays model.

The author of the hoax didn’t bother exploring how refereeing in closed access journals compared with ‘predatory publishers’. Gideon Burton

This class of journal has been labelled “predatory” by the campaigning librarian Jeremy Beall. According to Beall “predatory journals” offer a seemingly legitimate platform for publishing research, with the added advantage of a rapid turnaround between submission and publication.

If you need to publish something quickly, and are prepared to pay the A$300 to A$500 author fee after acceptance, a “predatory journal” will do the trick. Bohannon’s research suggests these operations are far from disinterested, and perhaps driven more by the prospect of the author fee rather than the publication of quality research for public good.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that a number of journals listed upon the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) fell for the Science sting. The DOAJ was established in 2003 with the aim of becoming the first port-of-call for those navigating their way around the reefs and shoals of open access publishing.

It’s generally recommended that you should consult the DOAJ if you want to know whether a journal is legit.

That DOAJ-listed journals, the vast majority of which have not been labelled predatory, should be caught out suggests the problem here is not unregulated open access, but a flawed editorial system.

But who’s to say some of the traditional behind-the-pay-wall journals, sitting comfortably under the aegis of traditional academic publishers, don’t suffer from the same problems?

Taming the “Wild West”?

This is something we don’t know; Bohannon didn’t bother exploring how refereeing in closed access journals compared with “predatory publishers”.

And unless there’s a follow up, we will be left with the dubious metaphor of the academic “Wild West” of publishing, an unruly and ungovernable place where unreliable knowledge creates a quagmire. Not a happy place to be.

More significantly, Science, having put the sting in motion, side-stepped the chance to offer even the most rudimentary solution.

Perhaps it was too hard, not least because the balance between the twin pillars of the university – teaching and research – has tipped dangerously in the latter’s favour by government adherence to the sibling doctrines of neo-liberalism and utilitarianism.

The abuses perpetrated by some open access publishers are merely a symptom of a culture that excessively rewards research over teaching. And where referees are so time-poor they can’t read a paper properly (probably because they are too busy putting together another funding proposal that must be justified by their research productivity).

This is not the first hoax by Science. In 1973, the psychologist David Rosenhan’s celebrated “Being Sane in Insane Places”, shocked the world of psychiatry by revealing the inadequacies of psychiatric diagnosis.

Rosenhan’s sting involved sending a group of “pseudo-patients” to mental hospitals, each reporting a single, very minor, psychotic incident. Without exception the pseudo-patients were admitted, mostly diagnosed with variant forms of schizophrenia, their apparent sanity undetected by the psychiatrists and nursing staff.

Rosenhan’s experiment had a huge impact on psychiatry. Not only did it further undermine contemporary attitudes to a profession already under siege from figures such Ivan Illich and R.D. Laing, it catalysed the efforts of the American Psychiatric Association to overhaul to their diagnostic system. The end result was the vastly influential DSM-III, the legacy of which lives on.

It remains to be seen whether this current hoax has a similarly large impact on the open access movement or whether it’s judged by history as a symptom of a much wider malaise.