Science gone bad

By Fabiana Kubke 05/10/2013

or the day after the sting

I got the embargoed copy of Science Magazine article on peer review in Open Access earlier this week, which gave me a chance to read it with tranquility. I have to say I really liked it. It was a cool sting, and it exposed many of the flaws in the peer review system. And it did that quite well. There was a high rate of acceptance of a piece of work that did not deserve to see the light.  I also immediately reacted to the fact that the sting had only used Open Access journals – cognizant of how that could be misconstrued as a failure of Open Access and detracting from the real issue, which is peer review.

I had enough time to write a blog post, and was lucky enough to be able to link to Michael Eisens’ take on the issue before I posted, so I did not need to get into the nitty gritty of why the take from the sting had to be taken for nothing more than what it was – an anecdotal set of events. Because what it was not, is a scientific study.

One of the things that I found valuable from the sting (or at least my take-home message) was that there is enough information out there to help researchers navigate the Open Access publishing landscape they are so scared of and provided some information on how to choose good journals. The excuse that there are too many predatory journals to justify not publishing in Open Access is now made weaker. It also provided all of us with an opportunity to reflect on the failures of peer review and the value of the traditional publication system.

Or so I thought.

Then the embargo was lifted, and I have been picking up  brain bits spilled over twitter, blogs and other social media as the tsunami of heads exploding started. And as the morning alarm clocks went off as the sun rose in different  time zones, new waves of brain bits came along.

By now, I could look at the entire ‘special issue’ and what else was in it.  Here  is where I see the problem.

There were lots of articles talking about science communication. Not one of them could I find (please someone correct me if I am wrong!)  that took on the sting to refocus the discussion in the right direction (that is, peer review), nor to reflect on how Science and the AAAS behind it measure up to those issues they so readily seemed to criticise.

I never liked the AAAS – or rather I began disliking it after  I got my first invitation to join in the late 1980’s. It seemed that all I needed to do to become a member was send them cash. There was no reason to do that – since obviously, without requiring anyone to endorse me as a “proper scientist” I could not see what that membership said about me other than having the ability to write a check. I was already doing that with the New York Times, and if I couldn’t put that down in my CV, then neither could I put down my membership with AAAS. Nothing gained, nothing lost, move on.

What I didn’t know back at that time, was that that first letter would be the first in a long (long!) series of identical invitations that would periodically arrive in my mailbox where they were be quickly disposed of in the rubbish bin in the corner of the room. I am sure one would be able to find plenty of those in the world’s landfills.

“The vitality of the scientific meeting has given rise to a troubling cottage industry: meetings held more for profit than enlightenment.” (Stone, R., & Jasny, B.)

Wut? Let’s apply the same logic to the AAAS membership – Would we consider that predatory behaviour too?

Let’s move on to peer review.

Moving back to the sting. Yes, they sent a lot of articles out. The article in science seems to me to be delivered from a very high horse, and one with no legs to stand on. Their N is large (perhaps not large enough, but that is beyond the point).  Because to each journal they just sent one (n=1; “en equal one”) hoax paper (singular, not plural). I may ask – had they sent say 10 hoax papers to each journal, would each journal have accepted the 10, only 5 or perhaps only 1? Because that makes a difference at the individual journal level. If we are going to accept that such n=1 is enough to make any informed conclusion about whether a journal is predatory or not, then, well, arsenic life. ‘Nuff said.

Let’s take a second look at the arsenic paper. n=1. The arsenic paper was so bad that poor Michael Eisen’s head exploded because readers of his blog actually believed he had sent it in as a hoax – I myself even got caught doing a double-take when I started reading his blog post (but I kept on reading!). That’ll teach him for being such a convincing writer.

So, if n=1 is enough, does that mean Science magazine is ready to add their name to the list of journals that don’t meet the mark? I could not, on their issue, find any reflection on that (please someone correct me if I am wrong!).

… and to open access

But the bigger issue in my view was what appears to be a position of Science on Open Access. Now Science is not Nature. Science is the flagship journal of AAAS. AAAS says it is an organisation  “serving science, service society”. Here are some of their mission bullet points:

Enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public;
Promote and defend the integrity of science and its use;
Foster education in science and technology for everyone;
Increase public engagement with science and technology; and

How is any of this better served by having their flagship magazine behind a paywall?

Can they support, through scientific data, that having their flagship journal behind a paywall helps achieve any of those goals? Now those are data I would love to see. Because their “special issue” ‘s biased criticism (please someone correct me if I am wrong!) of Open Access seems to suggest so. Now, if they can’t provide a scientific argument as to why we should give them so much money to be members or access their publication, then how are they any different from the “cottage industry” they seem so ready to criticize? Is preying on libraries or readers less bad than on authors? If I purchase a “pay per view” article and don’t like it, or it does not contain the data promised by the abstract, do I get my money back? Or do these paywalled journals just take the money and run? Because, as much as I dislike the predatory open access journals, at least they are putting the papers out there so that we can all croudsource on how much crap they are.

Do I find an issue with they bringing to the attention of their readership the troubled state of the publishing industry? No.

Do I find an issue with some of the articles in the special issue focusing on some of the naughty players in the Open Access landscape? No.

What I do have a problem with, is the apparent lack of reflection on Science’s and AAAS’ own practices (please someone correct me if I am wrong!).

There was an opportunity to step up, and that opportunity was missed. Science might have a shiny coat of wool decorated with double digit impact factors, but I am not buying it.

I am sticking with the New York Times.

(Full disclosure: I am an academic editor for PLOS ONE and PeerJ and the Chair of the Advisory Panel of Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. The views expressed here are purely my own.)

[Updated Oct 5 1:19 to add missing link]