Authority, Authors, Controversial Topics, Peer Review, Reading, Research, Social Role

The Tip of an Iceberg?

Peer Review Monster
Image by Gideon Burton via Flickr

Today’s post by Phil Davis outlines a small experiment to see if an open access publisher with an aggressive author-pays system would provide the kind of vigilant peer-review we ascribe to STM publishers everywhere. Our hope was that this experiment would fail. We hoped that Bentham Science Publishers would prove to be rigorous and uniform in their application of peer-review, and that our suspicion that something might be amiss with a publisher aggressively soliciting manuscripts would prove baseless.

Unfortunately, Bentham wasn’t up to the task. But there’s a larger issue this incident reveals, tangential to the story about Bentham.

While the paper they accepted was laughably nonsensical and there was no evidence of peer-review, the most salient communication we received from them around the paper they accepted was the invoice.

And this invoice begins the real story here.

It’s important that everyone in academic publishing realize there is a feeder issue at play — the swelling pools of author-pays funding, how they’re being managed, and policies around their use.

As Phil Davis has pointed out in other posts on this blog, there is a lack of transparency to how author funds are being spent while the oversight of these funds may not be adequate. In addition to pots of money coming from institutions, other pots of money have also opened up to support author-pays publishing — in early May, Pfizer agreed to cover author fees for any of their employees submitting to BioMed Central.

Institutions should contemplate how their policies and practices supporting author publication fees may encourage the emergence of publishing programs aimed at soliciting and accepting as many papers as possible. With poorly managed sources of funding (i.e., easy money), blaming these publishers is akin to treating a symptom of a more fundamental and deleterious malady.

Trust and independence are the foundations of valid scholarly communication. This story hints that the author-pays model can become a charade within the scholarly publishing community.

But it may not be the author-pays model itself that introduces the fatal flaw.

Instead, it may be the administrators of the funding who have shown an Achilles heel — lax oversight, a lack of transparency, motivations to support the “publish or perish” culture of academia today, and an inability to hold publishers accountable for services rendered.

With more funds going toward author-pays publishing, librarians, administrators, and even companies have to ask if their current practices for managing these funds are adequate to ensure the independence and trust that form the foundation of scholarly communications.

If they are not, then it won’t be only the authors who pay.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-val, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “The Tip of an Iceberg?

  1. “But it may not be the author-pays model itself that introduces the fatal flaw.”

    I think this is an important point. When the author-pays model was first introduced, I was skeptical that it would create nothing more than vanity publishing.

    Many high-quality open access publications have allayed my concerns over the years.

    But this incident shows what we all know–follow the money to see where incentives can lead people and organizations astray–and institute adequate safeguards against misbehavior.

    Traditional subscription-model journals are certainly not without their ethical violations.

    Bentham needs to launch an investigation–clearly neither the reviewer nor the editor actualy read the manuscript. Is this a one-time problem. Maybe, as the other fabricated article was rejected.

    Publishers need to build in internal safeguards. As Kent and Phil have pointed out, libraries and funding agencies need to know where their funding dollars are going.

    And perhaps the industry needs to develop an accepted label of just what peer review is and means. (Hmmm, hasn’t Geoff Bilder beeing talking about something like this?…yeah, that’s right, CrossMark.)

    Posted by Carol Meyer | Jun 10, 2009, 10:45 am
  2. Hi Kent,

    “Trust and independence are the foundations of valid scholarly communication. This story hints that the author-pays model can become a charade within the scholarly publishing community.”

    Fair enough, you have a good example supporting your argument. But then, there are others, as somebody pointed out in the Nature article:

    http://tinyurl.com/5qhkxo

    So there we have what it looks like the exact same history you are touting as proof of the flaws of the author-pays model, except of course this is an Elsevier Journal. What are we to make of this? Is it possible that sloppy or dishonest editors or reviewers are to blame here, instead of the entire approach to publishing?

    I don’t disagree with the fact that the author-pays model creates incentives that could lead to bad consequences. But I can’t see how having two data points showing that both this model and the one you defend can lead to failure proves anything.

    Cheers.

    Posted by Carlos | Jun 17, 2009, 2:59 pm
    • Carlos,

      The Elsevier example you provide doesn’t compare after some scrutiny. First of all, there was obvious peer-review. We received no sign of peer-review, despite assertions that it had occurred. Second, the paper only made it into a pre-publication stage, and was withdrawn by the editors before full acceptance. Ours was accepted outright. Third, the authors who submitted to Elsevier were not billed for anything. Bentham sent us an invoice for US$800.

      This is not “the exact same history.” Besides, my goal wasn’t to point to flaws in the model, but to identify flaws in the way the model is being managed. I also point to Elsevier’s mismanagement of a paid sponsorship model. No model is inherently flawed, but a mismanaged or unmanaged model will reveal flaws. As I state and you quote, “the author-pays model can become a charade.” Emphasis on “can.” If you take it in context, my point was that it becomes a charade when it’s mismanaged.

      Author-pays is the new kid on the block in some ways, but how it ties into the “publish or perish” culture of academia, the allocation of budgets at universities, and the trust and independence that underpins scholarly works bears scrutiny and thought.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jun 17, 2009, 4:13 pm
      • Hi Kent,

        Well, maybe I should have said it is an “analogous” story. And from the link I provided, it seems Elsevier backtracked after the students who have submitted the paper made their hoax public. Naturally, there’s no way a computer generated paper should make it to “accepted” status, what you call “pre-publication” state. The delay in publishing after that has to do with detecting minor errors (hence “proof” stage), not because Elsevier was taking a second look.

        And a final point regarding the linked story: as an Elsevier published author, I can assure you the bill would have come to the Iranian students cited in the article, had they not made their hoax public (or had not the Editors found out about it indepently).

        Of course, I don’t know all the details of the Elsevier incident, but if it is roughly true the fact that the paper was peer reviewed (it was computer generated!) doesn’t make the Elsevier incident look any better. It just looks like instead of having an editor that – at best – didn’t know what was going on in his own magazine, or – at worst – was part of a corrupt company, the reviewers and editors at Elsevier could not – in this case – distinguish garbage from actual research. Again, maybe not the same story, but definitely too close for comfort, don’t you think?

        Cheers.

        Posted by Carlos | Jun 17, 2009, 4:41 pm
        • Peer-review approaches are like chocolate cake recipes — some are much better than others, some are home-made and some are store-bought. Bentham only promised us chocolate cake, but didn’t do any work for the paper they accepted.

          I don’t understand your reference to “the bill would have come,” since the Elsevier journal in question doesn’t charge authors page charges or anything else from what I can tell.

          I agree that Elsevier doesn’t look good letting a paper get through. But any system is fallible — judicial, electoral, or mechanical. That doesn’t mean that all failures are comparable, or that the system is illegitimate.

          But any system can also be improved.

          The issue with Bentham was that the system they claimed to have implemented showed no sign of being in place for the paper they accepted. That’s not a system failure — that’s a failure to have a system. And again, the point here was that this same “failure to have a system” also seems to exist around management of author-pays funds.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Jun 18, 2009, 6:08 am
  3. Hi Kent,

    Again, the Bentham incident is beyond belief, and thanks to you exposing the issue I hope they either get their act together or suffer the consequences.

    But your inference of the weakness of the author-pay model as a result of their actions is extremely weak. You read the Elsevier incident in an extremely generous light. Which would be fine (I don’t expect a computer generated paper to go very far in Elsevier journals in my field), except that it is plain that it was also a failure of the same sort as the Bentham one.

    In summary, you would need to present much more evidence that this kind of incident can be used an indictment of the author-pay model and not of just a particular company or just, as in the case of Elsevier, just a “system failure”.

    Cheers.

    Posted by Carlos | Jun 18, 2009, 9:25 am

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