Just Say “No!”

Every day I am contacted by open-access journals for either to submit a paper, or to review a paper, or to serve on the editorial board of a new scientific journal. Most of them are hosted by Hindawi Publishing Corp., an obscure “growing academic publisher with 567 peer-reviewed, open access journals covering a wide range of academic disciplines”, based in Cairo, Egypt. A couple of years ago, out of idealistic desire to help, I had even agreed to the latter and immediately regretted. I resigned from the job after just four weeks since manuscripts which I received were unrelated to my field, potential reviewers I had contacted declined and, after just one round of reviews, it was the editor-in-chief who made a final decision of acceptance regardless whether authors had actually improved their manuscript (they had not). I was told that one round was sufficient. So, quality standards of peer review were effectively circumvented. Only later I learned that, due to the open-access publishers’ business model, rapid acceptance of a manuscript is crucial since authors had to pay enormous fees for getting their paper “in”. In the meantime I have marked respective publishers’ emails as spam and delete what anyway finds it way into my account.

The News contribution in Science magazine this week by John Bohannon is revealing since it confirms my strong suspicion of improper quality control. Bohannon had submitted more than 300 versions of a faked paper about a wonder drug for cancer therapy to open-access journals in a sting operation, authored by fictional, for instance, Ocorrafoo Cobange at faked Wassee Institute of Medicine. More than half of the journals had accepted the paper, “failing to notice its fatal flaws.”

Bohannon states,

“[I]t 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.

“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.”

“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.”

Not only obscure publishers of open-access journals such as Medknow, a company based in India, had accepted the fake paper. As Bohannon writes, “[t]he paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious 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.”

PhD students may be better advised not to target open-access journals since publication costs may be exorbitant. Quickly accepted papers may later be regarded worthless since peer review is now known to be insufficient. (The same is of course true for the plenty of national journals, sometimes not even covered by PubMed).

So, just say “No!” Be willing to learn the hard way. Most of us had to do that.

5 October 2013 @ 10:20 am.

Last modified October 6, 2013.



  1. Frieda Pickett

    The results of the ruse in the journal Science are very troubling. One must remember that most clinicians are not well learned in scientific design and bias. I read an editorial a few years ago by Michael Glick, Editor of JADA and a dental educator, that in four years of dental school there is no requirement for a course in statistical design or critical analysis of scientific literature. These skills are introduced at the Master’s level, graduate education. So, the result is that many can be misled regarding study results and how they apply to the patients in the practice. Clinicians rely on peer review to correct any errors and assure the published data and conclusions are accurate.


    • Muller

      Whether a paper had been properly peer-reviewed is often difficult to assess. But it is annoying when published papers contain obvious errors. A letter to the editor is usually not or no longer welcome. Post-publication peer review has recently found an (obscure, they are not telling) organization but may be possible, see here: https://pubpeer.com/about.

      Regarding dental schools, it may even be worse. Some colleagues may deny the necessity of scientific evidence which has mainly to be taught. They are usually uninformed about what is evidence and regard any published paper as evidence, getting soon overwhelmed when searching data bases. They are not used to change opinion if and when a systematic review in a high-ranked scientific journal says otherwise. Educating colleagues is a constant struggle.


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