Yesterday I received an e-mail that read: “Dear Dr Vaughan, Hope this mail finds you in good health. We appreciate your research in the field of radiology with reference to your article in Pubmed. In this regard I would like to invite an article for publication in Nuclear Medicine and Biomedical Imaging. All submitted articles will be reviewed by me (founding editor-in-chief) and our rapid review process allows the submission to be published in just over 7-10 days.” The letter was signed by Emily Jones, editorial assistant, and when I visited the journal’s website, I discovered the editor-in-chief “will be updated soon”! The publication charges that must be paid by the author for this open access journal are £590.
I have received similar letters at least once a week for the past few months – no doubt prompted by our paper that recently appeared in Clinical Imaging – and yesterday’s e-mail reminded me of a series of articles published by Science in October 2013. Among the articles was one entitled “Who’s afraid of peer review?” by John Bohannon that highlighted one of the significant problems with open access journals.
What Bohannon pulled off was a major sting operation in which he wrote a paper that had this basic form: molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z. He created a database of molecules, lichens and cancer cell lines and wrote a computer program to generate hundreds of unique papers. Other than the differences in X, Y and Z, the scientific content of each paper was identical. He then created fictitious authors and institutions based on African names.
Bohannon identified open access journals with a focus on pharmaceutical science or cancer biology and, over an eight-month period he sent the papers out to 304 journals, of which 255 underwent the entire editing process as far as acceptance or rejection. Now here’s the astonishing finding: while 98 papers were rejected, 157 were accepted, despite the obvious fatal flaws that any reasonable reviewer should have identified immediately. With the acceptance letter an invoice was also delivered, requesting payment of up to $3,100 before the paper would be published.
So, is this article in Science an indictment of all open access journals and am I justified in referring to the “tyranny” of these journals? Clearly there are some excellent high impact open access journals such as PLOS ONE, but it goes without saying that I will not be submitting my research findings to Nuclear Medicine and Biomedical Imaging.