An article in Science this past week has drawn attention to some very shoddy editorial controls at numerous open access journals. This post covers some of my thoughts on Mr. Bohannon’s “Sting” from the perspective of a researcher, author, reviewer and higher education teacher. The approach used by the author, John Bohannon, was interesting and should be taken as a lesson to those of us who receive the generic ad-email requests to submit articles, join editorial boards and/or act as reviewers for these journals. We all get them – “Dear Researcher” or some flattering but not grammatically correct salutation – sometimes our spam filter catches them but these mail-bot generated form letters have been increasing in the past few years. Many of requests to submit a manuscript, review a manuscript and/or join an editorial board I have received are from open access journals of which I have never heard. In fact, in many cases the journal’s scope is not even remotely linked to my area of expertise or research. Carefully choosing where we publish our work has always been important but until recently academia generally has not had to worry too much about journals shutting down a few months or years into operation. Publishing is supposed to be for posterity but how do you access an article from derelict or closed website?
Mr. Bohannon’s article should also be a discussion point for funding agencies, research groups and research institutions with a policy of publishing their findings in open access formats. My own institution, King’s College London, has such a policy and for the right reasons – the more accessible the work of King’s researchers, the higher the likelihood it will be used (and cited) by others in your field. However, the push toward the open access should not be at the expense of proper and rigorous editorial review. While every research paper author hopes to get the “accepted” and dreads the “major revision” or “rejected” notification from a journal, this part of the process is critical to validating one’s findings and ensuring that you are able to communicate your results effectively. As a reviewer, I also feel that we owe an author our candid and objective opinions on their manuscript. I personally detest getting a review back on my own work which states “major revision” or “rejection” but contains only a few generic sentences about the manuscript from one or both of the reviewers. Helpful and constructive comments are key for anyone wishing to improve their manuscript and ultimately get it published – and as a reviewer you owe it to these authors to provide this sort of feedback. For this reason I only accept requests to review when I know I can spend the required amount of time to do the review justice.
I plan to work this “sting” article into my undergraduate and graduate tutoring sessions on critical appraisal of scientific papers. It provides a good example for students to see that just because something is published in a scientific journal it does not excuse the reader from critically appraising the study themselves. We are training our students in the scientific process and should not forget to include the publishing/communication aspects of this process. What is the point of well thought out study designs and elegant experiments when the review of the work by your peers is second rate – regardless of whether it is positive or negative. The peer review is the last step in the scientific process and regardless of how busy we are in our professional life, as researchers/mentors we owe it to our peers and students to do it with the same gusto with which we do with our research.