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10/04/2013

Hoax Science paper that stung the open-access world: the reaction

The Science hoax-paper sting we told you about yesterday is, as promised, causing a semi-gigantic maelstrom in the science blogosphere and beyond today. 

Quick refresher: John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent at Science, designed a terribly flawed paper on a supposed miracle cancer drug and submitted it to 304 open-access journals. More than half accepted it for publication. 

The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), a trade association created to represent the interests of scholarly and scientific open-access publishers, posted a long-ish response on their website today. They have two basic points.

The first is that since Bohannon didn't send his fake article to subscription-based journals as well as open-access journals, no conclusions can be drawn about how the peer-review process at open-access is faring in comparison to traditional scholarly publishing. 

The second is that since Bohannon chose what journals to submit his hoax article to from a list of predatory open-access publishers maintained by a librarian and a list of supposedly reliable publishers on another website, his selection wasn't appropriately randomized. Therefore no conclusions can be drawn about how prevalent the peer-review problem is at open-access journals.

They agree on one point: "the data undoubtedly support the view that a substantial number of poor-quality journals exist."

This blog post helpfully rounds up a lot of the rest of the responses, some of which are a lot fiercer than OASPA's -- in particular one from Michael Eisen, the co-founder of the Public Library of Science (which publishes PLOS ONE, a leading open-access journal and one that rejected the hoax paper).  

Eisen, like many others, points out that in 2011, Science accepted and published a study about a species of bacteria researchers had discovered that seemed to use arsenic (a poison) in its DNA instead of phosphorous. That discovery would support the existence of life in environments we might otherwise consider too hostile (like Mars). After it appeared in Science, the study was promptly shredded and is now considered pretty much totally refuted.

The critics' point with regard to the arsenic study is that subscription-based journals sometimes fall prey to accepting studies that will boost their visibility and reach and attention-grabbing capabilities (their Impact Factor) but which occassionally turn out to be total garbage. 

Bohannon, meanwhile, seems a little baffled by some of the reactions.

"Critics are dismissing my investigation because it didn't also sting subscription journals.  Talk about missing the point," he wrote in an email this morning.

"I wasn't asking the question, 'How does OA (open-access) compare to subscription journals?'  I was asking, 'Who does peer review among OA publishers?'"

When we first spoke, Bohannon pointed out that since the hoax article he submitted was about a supposed cancer drug, it was only submitted to biomedical journals (though one journal of reproductive medicine accepted it). It's entirely possible, he said, that biomedical journals have laxer standards than some other fields -- perhaps a hoax physics paper wouldn't have been so readily accepted. 

 

But, he says, "All in all, happy so far with the debate."
Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

 

 

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