A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals.
On 4 July, good news arrived in the inbox of Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. It was the official letter of acceptance for a paper he had submitted 2 months earlier to the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, describing the anticancer properties of a chemical that Cobange had extracted from a lichen.
In fact, it should have been promptly rejected. 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.
I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine. Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. Beyond that headline result, the data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.
From humble and idealistic beginnings a decade ago, open-access scientific journals have mushroomed into a global industry, driven by author publication fees rather than traditional subscriptions. Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured. But Science‘s investigation casts a powerful light. Internet Protocol (IP) address traces within the raw headers of e-mails sent by journal editors betray their locations. Invoices for publication fees reveal a network of bank accounts based mostly in the developing world. And the acceptances and rejections of the paper provide the first global snapshot of peer review across the open-access scientific enterprise.
One might have expected credible peer review at the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals. It describes itself as “a peer reviewed journal aiming to communicate high quality research articles, short communications, and reviews in the field of natural products with desired pharmacological activities.” The editors and advisory board members are pharmaceutical science professors at universities around the world.
The journal is one of more than 270 owned by Medknow, a company based in Mumbai, India, and one of the largest open-access publishers. According to Medknow’s website, more than 2 million of its articles are downloaded by researchers every month. Medknow was bought for an undisclosed sum in 2011 by Wolters Kluwer, a multinational firm headquartered in the Netherlands and one of the world’s leading purveyors of medical information with annual revenues of nearly $5 billion.
But the editorial team of the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, headed by Editor-in-Chief Ilkay Orhan, a professor of pharmacy at Eastern Mediterranean University in Gazimagosa, Cyprus, asked the fictional Cobange for only superficial changes to the paper—different reference formats and a longer abstract—before accepting it 51 days later. The paper’s scientific content was never mentioned. In an e-mail to Science, managing editor Mueen Ahmed, a professor of pharmacy at King Faisal University in Al-Hasa, Saudi Arabia, states that he will permanently shut down the journal by the end of the year. “I am really sorry for this,” he says. Orhan says that for the past 2 years, he had left the journal’s operation entirely to staff led by Ahmed. (Ahmed confirms this.) “I should’ve been more careful,” Orhan says.
Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.
The rejections tell a story of their own. Some open-access journals that have been criticized for poor quality control provided the most rigorous peer review of all. For example, the flagship journal of the Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, was the only journal that called attention to the paper’s potential ethical problems, such as its lack of documentation about the treatment of animals used to generate cells for the experiment. The journal meticulously checked with the fictional authors that this and other prerequisites of a proper scientific study were met before sending it out for review. PLOS ONE rejected the paper 2 weeks later on the basis of its scientific quality.