The Tyranny of Open Access

Posted on: July 22nd, 2016 by admin 5 Comments
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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.

5 Responses

  1. Ed Sturrock says:

    Thanks, Kit. I’ll stop sending you invites to publish in open access journals! There was a good article by Kate Worlock published in Nature today on the pros and cons of Open Access . She says that the internet has created a difficult dichotomy, summarised by Stuart Brand in his book “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT”. Brand said that, “Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine – too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away” (

  2. David Dent says:

    Anyone with international publications will receive bogus invitations to write editorials, or papers, or to be an invited speaker at a congress. The give away is that the journal (“The International Journal of….), or the Congress (The World Congress of….) is totally unfamiliar in the field, and the total give away if the fee required, sometimes >$1000.
    Ars longa, vita brevis.

    • JP van Niekerk says:

      And there I thought that my contributions had been acknowledged at last!

  3. Kit,
    Save your hard earned Rand!
    Sooner than you think, Hologic will be begging to join forces with Caperay!
    As I used to tell my patients “I am seldom wrong!!”
    Ian MA MD(cantab)

  4. Kit Vaughan says:

    Thanks for your comments, Ed, David, JP and Ian.
    Your link to the article by Kate Warlock in Nature was a good one, Ed, as was the quote by Stuart Brand.
    Hopefully, many of these fly-by-night publishers will disappear in due course but, given the ongoing pressure on academics to publish, I rather suspect the trend will continue. It just means those people reviewing a paper or a grant or someone’s portfolio for promotion, will need to have their wits about them!