The Good and the Bad of Open Access Journals

A recent paper in Science reported some very disturbing results: a manuscript with major flaws that any competent reviewer should notice was accepted by the majority of journals to which it was submitted, without major criticisms.

I WISH that my papers had that easy a time!

Seriously, though, the paper was sent to 304 journals, and accepted by more than half, in spite of major content flaws that made it not in the least bit believable as a scientific contribution. The 'sting' operation was published in Science magazine as a critique of open-access journals, revealing (according to the author) "... little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals."

I think that this result can be taken in two ways, each with valid viewpoints and insights.

On one side, it can be taken as a serious and damning view into the laziness and lack of rigor in the current peer-review process. For the journals that sent the manuscript out for independent peer review, this 'experiment' illustrates that many peer reviewers may not take a careful, detailed, and critical look at a manuscript that is sent to them. Even with ostensibly credible research reports from real, living researchers, some poor quality papers do get published. This situation is a sad condemnation of a step that is key to science.

On the other side, however, this experiment points out not that open-access journals are bad, but rather that some open-access journals do not share the vision of academic journals as important modes of communication among academics (note that the manuscripts were sent only to open-access journals, so we do not know how it would have fared in non-open-access venues).

Some 'publishers' have found that one can mock up what looks like a 'journal,' stick it on a web server somewhere, charge significant publication fees, and make a lot of money at it. Most frequently, these journals are located in countries in which labor is cheap, boosting profits that much more. This point is far from new--Jeffrey Beall has long maintained Beall's List, a very useful catalog of publishers with dubious records of genuine academic scholarly publishing. Also, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) attempts a view of the positive side--journals that have good records, although weeding out the bad ones has not been easy.

Quite simply, a financial opportunity exists to exploit the needs of academics searching for outlets for their research products. Throw in a bit of dishonesty on the part of the 'publishers' with deceptive naming practices. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to look twice and thrice at an email that was about "International Journal of Tropical Disease & Health... formerly known as American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Public Health..." checking to be sure that it was not the same as the well-respected American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene. By mimicking titles of respected journals, these publications can sometimes trick well-meaning researchers. These journals have zero editorial credibility, and zero interest in fostering academic interchange and communication, but they are very willing to post slightly-prettied-up versions of scientists' manuscripts in exchange for a publication fee. If production costs are low, a lot of money can be made off of this racket.

What is to be done? These journals will not go away voluntarily, and indeed more seem to appear each week. Rather, (1) authors must show maturity and rigor in choosing journals for publication of their work, (2) peer reviewers must pay very close attention to the papers that they agree to review, and (3) those evaluating a curriculum vitae (e.g., tenure and promotion committees, job selection committees) must investigate journals carefully before according academic credit. It comes down to doing a few Internet searches, checking Beall's List and DOAJ, and keeping a critical eye as regards academic publishing.

As a final comment, let's be sure not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, the Science 'sting' operation showed that a lot of open-access journals are weak and profit-oriented (even unscrupulous), rather than being rigorous academic journals. Many other open-access journals, however, are careful and rigorous, and are not deserving of this criticism. These journals likely represent an important element in the future of academic publishing, so we should do our best to protect them and nurture them, while discouraging the predatory and shoddy editorial practices on the part of some. After all, let's keep our eye on the prize: an open, inclusive, and effective system of scientific communication.