PVV – who’s afraid of peer review?

I recently came across this article “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” by John Bohannon in the October, 2013 issue of Science (Vol. 342, no. 6154, pp. 60-65).

In this piece, John explores what would happen if he (with the help of Science) concocted a spoof research article and submitted it to several open access (OA) journals…

FYI: open access journals are *scholarly* folios available online to readers without financial, legal, or technical barriers beyond gaining basic access to the interwebs. In other words, you don’t have to have the sort of fancy library card usually reserved for those with some level of university affiliation to read OA publications.

This is because OA journals make their money in other ways – some are subsidized and some require authors to “pay to publish” (like pay to play, only different) – thus, they don’t have to charge readers.

OA journals are getting A LOT of press lately because they (allegedly) make information more accessible, thus less elitist. And lately, big publication house have been jumping on the bandwagon – places like Sage and Elsevier now have OA journals, in addition to their more traditionally academic offerings.

Most, if not all, OA journals claim to be just as rigorous as “conventional” journals – authors must go through a peer-review process comparable to what they would endure via any other non-OA publication. In my view, this is an interesting engagement of social justice – you pay for your publication, Researcher, so everyone can then have access. Because someone has to pay, and it’s never gonna be the journal. So if you, Researcher, publish with an OA journal, you are contributing to equality, access, and social justice etc etc etc.

A common critique of OA journals though is that they actually are not as rigorous as conventional journals. Thus, even though people may have greater access to “science,” the science that’s accessible is allegedly kinda crappy.

John’s little Science article experiment points us in this direction…

According to John:

On 4 July, good news arrived in the inbox of Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. It was the official letter of acceptance for a paper he had submitted 2 months earlier to the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, describing the anticancer properties of a chemical that Cobange had extracted from a lichen.


In fact, it should have been promptly rejected. Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.


I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine. Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. Beyond that headline result, the data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing. (here)


I have examined only one OA journal article in-depth – Emily Prior’s “Women’s Perspectives of BDSM Power Exchange,” which was published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (V. 16) on February 28, 2013. The EJHS is an independent online scholarly publications – an OA journal.

You can read my full review of Emily’s work here, but suffice it to say that I didn’t find any major flaws. Her methods were good, her work was grounded in previous research, and her conclusions were interesting and relevant… So you can’t say that all OA journals are negligent; nor can you say that all articles published therein are of poor quality. But I don’t think John was suggesting this.

John’s Science experiment points to a really great lesson regarding disclosure, access, rigor, and elitism in academic publishing.

In many respects, peer review is annoying – fraught with disconnects between researchers, variable expertise and experience, egos (ugh), and unpaid labor, among so many other things. But peer review also keeps you accountable. You don’t *have* to make every adjustment that the process demands, but you good goddamn well had better be able to “defend” your work when it’s called out.

OA journals seem to be relying on series of currently popular cultural and academic heartstring trends, all while still making sure they get paid. This is fine, but if you’re gonna demand payment, you’d better make sure you’re holding up your end of the bargain. You’d better make sure you’re producing a product that actually does what it says it does (read: is rigorous across the board).

I love the idea of open access journals; but for now, I’m going to continue to publish in more traditional venues. Given the nature of academia and of my research specifically, I need to feel fully confident that the journal is doing its job on the back end. Hopefully OA journals will work out their kinks during the next few years.

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