Given enough Eyeballs…

peer_reviewJohn Bohannon, a science journalist who writes for Science and other technical magazines, set up a hoax to prove that open access scientific publishing is broken. Bohannon wrote a fake scientific paper and submitted slightly modified versions to 304 open access journals over a period of 10 months. More than half of them accepted the paper. The sting was carefully crafted, as Bohannon himself explains in an article published in Science on Oct 4, 2013. In fact, what the article shows is exactly the opposite of what Bohannon and Science intended, namely that we need an even wider use of open access, because what is actually broken is peer review.

Open access is about making the results of research freely available to anyone. The internet has fuelled the open access movement, but open access is not only or fundamentally a technical “revolution”. Open access is moved by idealism and principle, a cause which in fact and unfortunately already counts with a martyr: Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and long-time supporter of Open Access, who was arrested and condemned after downloading millions of documents from JSTOR:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.  (Aaron Swartz , Guerilla Open Access Manifesto)

Scientific journals have served for years as forums for the introduction, scrutiny and critique of scientific research, looking after the quality and prestige of scientific production. Today, even though their costs should be limited, the price of journals has exploded. One of the biggest publishers, Elsevier, consistently reports hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. It has been the centre of worldwide criticism because much of this profit comes from public expenditure to buy access to articles that have been produced with public funds, a business model which is debatable to say the least and, as Curt Rices clearly explains here, ripe for innovation:

Journals pay the authors of an article nothing. They pay the editor of a journal nothing. They pay the three or more reviewers of articles nothing. Some journals incur expenses associated with typesetting and related activities. And of course those that publish on paper have costs associated with printing and distribution.

Publishers then sell the journals to – you’ve guessed it – universities. They sell them to the very institutions that have given so much to the publisher already: research papers and the costs behind them as the time of researchers, editors and reviewers. All this – and the copyright to the article – are freely donated to the publisher (Curt Rices, “Open access publishing hoax: what Science magazine got wrong”, The Guardian)

Research funders are beginning to expect open access to the research they support and the Open Access Movement tries to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away and their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. Open access tries to put researchers and funding institutions back in control of scientific dissemination cutting the obnoxious middleman, the scientific Journal.

However open access is fraught with some birth defects which are jeopardizing it. Roughly half of open access journals have author fees to cover the cost of publishing instead of reader subscription fees. In many cases, it is the author’s employer or research funder who pays the fee. This is a model that invites corruption in a system where researchers feel a huge pressure to publish and quantity is often a proxy for quality. The true problem for science today is not open access, it is quality:

The real problem for science today is quality control. Peer review has been at the heart of this, but there are too many failures – both in open access and traditional journals – simply to plod ahead with the same system. We need new approaches and numerous individuals and organisations are working on these, such as the open evaluation project (Curt Rices, “Open access publishing hoax: what Science magazine got wrong”, The Guardian)

John Bohannon recognizes it at the coda of his article, where he quotes David Roos, the biologist who first gave him a clue on open-access problems:

If I had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, Roos told me, “I strongly suspect you would get the same result.” (…) “Everyone agrees that open-access is a good thing,” Roos says. “The question is how to achieve it.” (John Bohannon, “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”, Science)

Quantity versus quality. We are facing the same problem both with scientific papers and patents: low quality or even fake papers, too-broad patents to be used as weapons in an arms race. There is virtually no way to control for the proliferation of junk scientific and technological production. An increased demand for science and technology and the wrong incentives are blowing up the traditional control mechanisms: research peers and patent office budgets and clerks. Most people agree that more “open” —more eyeballs— is the way out and not the problem:

The best way to potentially curb these patent wars, then, would be to publish the patents publicly and allow “everyone to comment to see if there’s any prior art” (“Google Chairman Eric Schmidt Weighs In On Patent Issues: They’re ‘Terrible’”, TechCrunch)

The question is how to achieve it.


  1. […] Am I against peer review? By no means. I am fully in favour. Does it mean we have to accept peer review as a barrier or excuse for the bureaucratization of science? No, it doesn’t. Can we have the best of both worlds, open science (& self-publishing) and a rigorous monitoring and debate? Yes, we can. Of course! This is the same debate we had about open source. There is no better way to fight against pollution, yes also intellectual pollution, than more eyeballs! […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.