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Open Access Journals: Overgrowth and Erosion of Quality?

Open Access Journals: Overgrowth and Erosion of Quality?

Reigniting the debate on open access journals and peer review.peerreview1

Last week, Science published an article that exposed the shortcomings of Open-Access journals. Author John Bohannon, a science journalist, created fake papers to evaluate the quality of peer review and to find out whether they would be submitted.

Bohannon sent his articles to various journals that are listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and in a list of ‘predatory’ publishers drafted by Jeffrey Beall, a library scientist. He wrote a computer program in the style of mad libs (a game where you insert random words into a text to end up with a funny story) – Molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z – by which he created hundreds of unique articles that he submitted to 304 Open Access journals from under a pseudonym and from a fictive institution.

As Bohannon says himself: “acceptance [of the paper] was the norm, not the exception”. In the end, 157 of the papers were accepted, 98 were rejected and the rest gave no response. This means that few papers did the review required to spot the obvious flaws of the paper. With these findings, the article reignites the debate on peer review and Open Access journals and underlines what is seen as the biggest disadvantage of Open Access journals: the quality of the review process.

Furthermore, this article touches upon the question of the cost of publishing. While in traditional publishing the costs are for the journal, a lot of the Open Access journals accompany their acceptance letter with an invoice for the cost of publishing the paper. Next to the issues of quality – or lack of – peer review, the distribution of the publishing costs has shifted to the side of the author instead of the journal. This might prevent authors to publish their article and does not necessarily change the quality of scientific publishing for the better.

Although the number of Open Access articles and journals has been steadily increasing since the beginning of the nineties, there are still evident problems with Open Access journals. Bohannon even states that “Open Access has multiplied the underclass of journals”. The distribution of the costs and the quality of the papers in Open Access journals is still a subject of debate and, although solving some of the problems that lead to the criticism on traditional publishing, Open Access journals seem to create new problems.

United Academics is trying to tackle these problems and so are other websites, like the recently launched Peerage of Science. Because of the growing resentment to dedicate valuable time to peer review articles for journals that are not Open Access and the inefficiency, sluggishness and favoritism of the peer review process, this website strives to improve the peer review process by creating an online social network for peer review. In this network of scientists, researchers can submit their papers and other members with relevant expertise will provide review that journals can use to decide whether to publish the papers or not.

The debate on Open Access journals and peer review has been going on for some time and the recent article in Science reopens the discussion on problems with quality of peer review and cost distribution in Open Access journals. Although the number of Open Access articles and journals is growing, this article suggests that the quality is decreasing.

What are your thoughts on the future of Open Access journals and peer review? How should the improvement of peer review quality and distribution of costs be dealt with?

In the meantime, at the end of 2015, the reputation of Open Acces journals is on the rise.


Photo: Flickr, AJC1

Bohannon, J. (2013). Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Science DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6154.60

Whitfield, J. (2011). Open Access comes of age: publishing model enters phase of slower but steady growth. Nature DOI: 10.1038/474428a

Nura Rutten

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