November 4, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

This blog will be written in two parts. It discusses some interesting results produced by the publisher Science in regards to the quality of peer review of open access (OA) journals. In this first part, I will provide a brief explanation of OA journals and how peer review works and cover some of the shortcomings of peer review. In the second part of this blog post, I will discuss the specific experiment reported by Science and explain some of the limits of its design and end off with an interesting and novel model of the OA journal BioéthiqueOnline.

Part 1: The Open Access Movement and Limits of Traditional Peer Review

There has been a rise in OA journals, which are scholarly journals that are available online and are free to access or can be heavily subsidized. There is variation in how OA journals function e.g., authors may self-archive and upload a copy of the paper to an institutional or central repository (e.g., PubMed Central), journals may provide free access after an embargo period typically 6-12 months, or all journal articles may be made available online but authors pay a fee to publish. This last model is one we will pay attention to for the purposes of this blog.

OA journals have several notable advantages. First, they maximize the impact of the research because their publications are accessible by anyone with Internet access. While many academics in high-income nations in university or college settings have library access to a wide range of journals, the same is not true for scholars in low and middle-income countries. Further, professionals in other sectors (e.g., government) and members of the general public may also not have access to traditional academic journals, perhaps due to their high subscription cost. Thus OA journals can have a broader reach. There are studies starting to show that OA publications are cited more often than non-OA articles. Several major funding bodies, including those in the U.S. and Canada, permit research funds to be used to cover OA fees, encourage researchers to publish in OA journals and require research findings to be made publicly available within a year. The OA movement has been endorsed by scholars, funders, research institutions, librarians, some publishers and others, yet there are several concerns stemming from OA publications.

Traditionally, non-OA journals require payment for subscription or use. The costs here are required for managing the journal editorial staff which has to handle articles from the moment they are submitted to the journal, during peer or editorial review, during editing, type setting and formatting phases, and potentially for printing and shipping costs. While having a journal completely online might reduce some of the costs associated with print copies of the journal, the bulk of the costs remain the same for OA journals. OA journals recuperate these costs through different means, but most often by charging authors to publish. Some journals charge upwards of $2,000 and $3,000 for publication. This, however, causes an incentive for OA journals to accept articles, regardless of quality, because only after accepting a manuscript for publication will authors be charged. For this reason, those opposed to the OA journal movement argue that peer review may be shoddy or that editors may consider negative reviews lightly and make decisions in favor of publishing the article despite any shortcomings. The point in giving you this history lesson is to lead up to an interesting investigation conducted by the journal Science, where they submitted flawed articles to OA journals to determine the quality of peer review.

Peer Review

Before I begin talking about the study by the Science group, I wanted to mention a few things that we know about peer review. Peer review is the main system of quality control in academic research. Peer reviewers, who are invariably established researchers, serve as gatekeepers and evaluate research articles for publication and grant proposals for funding. The system of peer review is embedded in other aspects of academic life, including winning awards and receiving prizes, tenure and promotion, selection for presentations, and membership on boards and committees. Speaking strictly about scientific publications, peer reviewers measure a range of attributes in manuscripts: the scientific value and innovativeness of the publication, whether the methods are appropriate and the analysis and interpretation of the results accurate, whether the research adhered to ethical standards, whether there is suspicion of research fraud, plagiarism or conflicts of interest, whether the manuscript is appropriate for the journal, and the clarity and quality of the written work. Yet, there are empirical studies showing that peer review of journal publications or research proposals are not all they are cracked up to be. These studies demonstrate bias based on gender, status, institution, and ethnicity; a low rate of inter-reviewer reliability, which may be heightened for multi- or interdisciplinary research; and reviewers who have inadequate knowledge to undertake appropriate review of particular research and thus conduct superficial reviews.

Next month, I will discuss the study conducted by staff of the well-known general scientific journal Science reported by John Bohannon (Science 342: 60-65, 2013). Stay tuned…


I would like to thank my colleague Dr. Bryn Williams-Jones at the University of Montreal for his thoughtful comments to this blog.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

1 comments | Topics: Conflict of Interest , Publication Ethics , Research Integrity


Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 11/07/13 9:46 AM

Thank you for this article. I am looking forward to the second Part.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.