When John Bohannon, biologist and journalist, published the results of his self-described “sting operation” in Science (“Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Oct. 4, 2013), it triggered an enormous firestorm, more among scholars than librarians. Bohannon created a hoax article about a chemical derived from lichen that held promise for cancer treatments. He wrote it using a flawed methodology and with several glaring errors that he believed any knowledgeable editor/scholar/peer reviewer would immediately spot. He then submitted the article, using different fictitious quasi-African author names, to 304 open access journals that are published in English, are listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and claim peer review.
A stunning 157 accepted the paper, often with no comments or indication it went to peer reviewers. Of those that rejected the paper—there were 98—a few provided extensive commentary on why the editors declined to publish the spoof.
Criticisms of Bohannon’s approach came quickly—and many responders were furious. He held a grudge against open access. His report should have been peer-reviewed. His experiment lacked a control group. He didn’t submit the paper to non-open access journals. His selection criteria for the journals lacked sufficient rigor. He had a vendetta about peer review. He didn’t follow academic standards for research relating to human subjects. He demeaned African scholarship and made it difficult for African researchers to be taken seriously. He’s a hypocrite, since the article is meant to support the business model of the journal in which it’s published.
Some of the criticisms miss the mark. The sting operation was just that—a journalistic approach rather than a scientific experiment. Science publishes peer-reviewed articles, but it also publishes news. Bohannon’s article was more investigative journalism than scientific research. Plus, he did provide, as supplementary material, a full list of the journals he approached, broken out by acceptance/non-acceptance.
Librarians are quick to defend open access. It fits with our professional ethos. Librarians are also on the front lines of defending intellectual freedom and identifying threats to information veracity. But we operate on assumptions of trust. We rely on the judgment of others, particularly editors, peer reviewers, and database producers. Librarians cannot become peer reviewers for every individual scholarly paper retrieved through database searches.
What, then, is the role of information professionals when the rigors of peer review, the credibility of open access journals, and the integrity of the system is called into question? We need to recognize that skepticism is necessary, but we should not condemn all open access or peer review based on a few blunders. We should also be encouraged that DOAJ withdrew some of the questionable titles from its list.
We should continue to trust our suppliers, while not shrinking from asking the tough questions about coverage. Journals of questionable repute should not be part of subscription products, and information professionals should demand credibility and integrity of content so we can continue in a relationship of trust with our vendors.