The Oct. 4, 2013 issue of Science magazine was devoted to scientific communication, specifically the impact of digital technologies. As noted in the Front Lines editorial by Marydee Ojala in the November/December 2013 issue, its lead article has led to a furor throughout the scholarly world and the mainstream media. “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” (sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full) tells the grim tale of author John Bohannon and a team of colleagues drafting a blatant, error-laden research article espousing a lichen extract in treating cancer written by an unknown African author named Ocorrafoo Cobange. Bohannon then submitted the article to several hundred open access journals, over half of which accepted it for publication. The rejection the article deserved shouldn’t have been a close call, according to Bohannon. “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.” Not only was the author unknown, since Bohannon had created him out of whole cloth, but the “Wassee Institute of Medicine,” where he was supposed to work, didn’t exist either.
Many open access journals have business offices or financial institutions in developing countries, but scholarly publishing is a global business. One of the journals that accepted the fake article is owned by Medknow, a company headquartered in India but owned by Wolters Kluwer. Elsevier also owned a journal that took the bait, as did Sage, Kobe University in Japan, and several scholarly society journals. Of course, some didn’t, e.g., PLOS ONE, a journal from the Public Library of Science.
After feeling the sting of this Science magazine covert operation, some open access advocates have complained that it didn’t extend to print publications, ones that cost subscribers a pretty penny, including Science magazine itself. In fact, if distant memories don’t fail me, I seem to recall Science itself getting caught by a fraudulent research effort, though clearly not one as obvious as this one. Yes, yes! A South Korean researcher from Seoul National University fabricated some experiments on stem cell research and got Science to publish articles on his success in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning in 2004 and 2005. Fraud in scientific publishing is nothing new. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has had a whole set of terms in its Medline Subject Headings (MeSH) thesaurus for decades. The terms include Scientific Misconduct (aka Misconduct, Scientific—sigh), Scientific Fraud, Research Misconduct, Ethics in Publishing, Fraudulent Data, Retraction of Publication, Duplicate Publication, Plagiarism, etc. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services even has an Office of Research Integrity (ori.dhhs.gov) to keep an eye on things like this. I’ll bet its staff has memorized that issue of Science by now.
But is that the only defense against the dispersion of bad science? Open access reaches more people faster than traditional publications. Its advocates boast loudly that open access content can connect researchers all over the world and in all kinds of fields. It can even reach laypeople, who are often the taxpayers who funded the research in the first place. But if it’s so easy to scam, if the infrastructure is so vulnerable, that could make it dangerous.
More than any other profession, librarians have a vested interest in the success of open access. It offers the only real hope for getting us and our shrinking budgets out from under the oppression of scholarly publisher pricing. It also has the potential to fulfill our highest aspirations as ethical professionals, namely to inform as many people as possible with the truth they need, the information they want. But are we doing enough? The NLM is one of the largest and best-funded library systems in the world, and tying subject tags onto scattered references months after the appearance and entry of a record into Medline hardly seems enough. One wonders how NLM would handle this spoof article if it ever actually appears somewhere.
Bohannon’s article salutes another effort, Beall’s List of Predatory Open-Access Publishers (academia.edu/1151857/Bealls_List_of_Predatory_Open-Access_Publishers) from Jeffrey Beall, “a library scientist at the University of Colorado, Denver” that “names and shames what he calls “predatory” publishers. The term is a catchall for what Beall views as unprofessional practices, from undisclosed charges and poorly defined editorial hierarchy to poor English—criteria that critics say stack the deck against non-U.S. publishers.”
But one lone battler hardly seems enough either. Perhaps that U.S. Office of Research Integrity should get together with the Association of Research Libraries and other librarian associations to get to work on this problem. After all, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of which comprises the NLM, has been leading the charge in the federal government for open access. It’s time to coordinate the efforts of librarians inside and outside the government to keep open access effective. Science has thrown down the gauntlet. Let’s pick it up and fight for the right.
And speaking of the right, while we’re at it, we might not just look at issues such as fraud and failure of peer review. Of course, telling the truth is the first and most important standard of scholarly publishing, but there are other factors. There’s telling the story, i.e., making scholarship clear and comprehensible to as wide a group of readers as possible. We need to figure out who might want or need the information we have in hand and how to reach them effectively. We need to recognize the dangers of information overload shutting off readers and find ways to synthesize and rank sources to suit the readers’ needs, tastes, and backgrounds. The technologies exist for reaching people, but so many are using the technologies for so many purposes as to imperil the future of learning. Libraries and librarians have been going through tough times with not much prospect of improvement anytime soon. But we still have one thing going for us—a good reputation for dedication to the public interest. If we can link our forces and resources to reach the public with what they need to know and keep that information worthy of knowing, we will be doing good and doing well.