This is part 2 of a blog written last month. In Part 1, I explained how open access (OA) journals work and some of the shortcomings of peer review. This was done to provide a background on a recently published study by staff at the leading journal Science. In this part, I will cover the specific experiment reported by Science and explain some of the limits of its design followed by an interesting and novel model of the non-profit OA journal BioéthiqueOnline.
Part 2: Open Access Journals, Peer Review, and Conflicts of Interest
Do OA Journals Perform Rigorous Peer Review?
Recently, John Bohannon of the Science group conducted an investigation where he submitted scientifically flawed papers using fake names and provided the names of research or academic institutions that didn’t exist to 304 OA journals (Science 342: 60-65, 2013). The idea was to create a scientific paper with major errors, so that “[a]ny 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 shortcomings immediately.” Bohannon created a database of molecules, lichens and cancer cell lines and ran them through a computer program to generate unique papers, but with a standard structure: “molecule X from lichen species Y inhibits the growth of cancer cell Z.” He also created fake authors from fictitious African institutions with the hope that using developing world authors would lessen suspicion by journal editors. The main flawed graph showed a dose-dependent decrease in cell growth yet despite rising concentrations, the effects on cells were modest. In addition, the anti-proliferative molecule was dissolved in a large amount of ethanol and because the control group was not treated with the same solution buffer, the anti-proliferative effects seen could simply be due to the cytotoxic effects of ethanol. In a second experiment, Bohannon attempted to show an “interactive effect” by adding the molecule with radiation, but the control cells were not exposed to any radiation. As the experiments had a tragically flawed design, the idea was that any peer reviewer should pick them up and the article should be rejected.
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