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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 4, 2013

An Open Access Trash Heap

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Posted by Derek

Science magazine and writer John Bohannon have done us all a favor. There's a long article out in the latest issue that details how he wrote up a terrible, ridiculous scientific manuscript, attached a made-up name to it under the aegis of a nonexistent institution, and sent this farrago off to over three hundred open-access journals. The result?

On 4 July, good news arrived in the inbox of Ocorrafoo Cobange, a biologist at the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. It was the official letter of acceptance for a paper he had submitted 2 months earlier to the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals, describing the anticancer properties of a chemical that Cobange had extracted from a lichen.

In fact, it 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.

I know because I wrote the paper. Ocorrafoo Cobange does not exist, nor does the Wassee Institute of Medicine. Over the past 10 months, I have submitted 304 versions of the wonder drug paper to open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws. Beyond that headline result, the data from this sting operation reveal the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.

Well, sure, you're saying. Given the sorts of lowlife publishers out there, of course they took it, as long as the check cleared. But it's even worse than it appears:

Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic 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.

Here's all the documentation, and it documents a sorry state indeed. You'll note from the world map in that link that India glows like a fireplace in this business. Nigeria has a prominence that it does not attain in the legitimate science publishing world, and there are exotic destinations like Oman and the Seychelles to be had as well. The editors of these "journals" tend to be people you've never heard of from universities that you didn't even know existed. And the editorial boards and lists of reviewers have plenty of those folks, mixed in with people who reviewed one paper before they didn't know better, and with people who didn't realize that their names were on the mastheads at all.

Bohannon didn't actually submit the exact same manuscript to all 304. He generated mix-and-match versions using an underlying template, giving him variations of the same crap and taking great care that the resulting papers should be obviously flawed:

he papers describe a simple test of whether cancer cells grow more slowly in a test tube when treated with increasing concentrations of a molecule. In a second experiment, the cells were also treated with increasing doses of radiation to simulate cancer radiotherapy. The data are the same across papers, and so are the conclusions: The molecule is a powerful inhibitor of cancer cell growth, and it increases the sensitivity of cancer cells to radiotherapy.

There are numerous red flags in the papers, with the most obvious in the first data plot. The graph's caption claims that it shows a "dose-dependent" effect on cell growth—the paper's linchpin result—but the data clearly show the opposite. The molecule is tested across a staggering five orders of magnitude of concentrations, all the way down to picomolar levels. And yet, the effect on the cells is modest and identical at every concentration.

One glance at the paper's Materials & Methods section reveals the obvious explanation for this outlandish result. The molecule was dissolved in a buffer containing an unusually large amount of ethanol. The control group of cells should have been treated with the same buffer, but they were not. Thus, the molecule's observed "effect" on cell growth is nothing more than the well-known cytotoxic effect of alcohol.

The second experiment is more outrageous. The control cells were not exposed to any radiation at all. So the observed "interactive effect" is nothing more than the standard inhibition of cell growth by radiation. Indeed, it would be impossible to conclude anything from this experiment.

I like this - the paper looks superficially presentable, but if you actually read it, then it's worthless. And yes, I realize that I've described a reasonable fraction of the ones that actually get published, but this is a more egregious example. I hope. The protocol was that Bohannon submitted the paper, and if it was rejected outright, that was that. If any reply came back addressing the paper's flaws in any way, he had a version ready to send back with more stuff in it, but without fixing any of the underlying problems. And if the paper was accepted, at any point in the process, he sent the journal a note that they'd discovered a serious flaw in their work and had to withdraw the manuscript.

157 journals accepted the paper, and 98 rejected it. He'd submitted it to a further 49 journals from his original list, but at least 29 of those appeared to be out of the business entirely, and the other 20 still had the paper "under review". So of those 255 decisions, 149 of them looked as if they'd occurred with little or no review. For a rejection, that's not so bad - this is a perfect example of manuscript that should not even be sent out for review. But the acceptances, well. . .

The other 106 editorial decisions made with some review are problematic, too. 70% of these were acceptances. Even in the few cases (36 times out of 304) where the paper was actually reviewed, and the reviewers realized that something was wrong with it (as they should have), the paper was accepted by 16 journals anyway.

The Elsevier journal that took this heap of junk was Drug Invention Today, in case you're wondering. I've never heard of it, and now I know why. The Sage journal was the Journal of International Medical Research, so you can strike that one off your list, too, assuming that the name wasn't enough all by itself. Another big open-access publisher, Hindawi (they advertise on the back cover of Chemistry World in the UK) rejected the paper from two of its journals, much to their relief. Jeffrey Beall's list of predatory publishers came as as pretty accurate, as well it might.

The problems with all this are obvious. These people are ripping off their authors for whatever publication fees they can scam, and some of these authors are not in a position to afford the treatment they're getting. No doubt some subset of the people who send manuscripts to these places are cynically padding their publication lists. The "editors" of these things get to reap a little unearned prestige for their "efforts" as well, so the whole enterprise just adds to the number of self-inflated jackasses with padded reputations, and the world is infested with too many of those people already. But I'm sure that there's another subset of authors who don't realize that they're submitting their results into a compost pile, and being asked to pay for the privilege. The first group are contemptible; the second group is sad. None of it's good.

Comments (57) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. Hap on October 4, 2013 8:35 AM writes...

It was even accepted by journals for which the paper's topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

That sounds like a journal not safe for work in two ways instead of just the one suggested by the title. If it were in your professional field, I'm really sorry - reading a journal shouldn't require a home computer, a machete, and a shovel.

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2. Janne on October 4, 2013 8:38 AM writes...

Journalist sends of junk paper to low-ranking journals. Most low-ranking journals accept it. Which is why they're low-ranking to begin with of course. Big surprise.

For this to be about open access in any way he would have had to also send it out to similarly ranked closed journals and look for a significant difference between them. I am willing to bet he would not find any such difference.

To quote myself in another forum:

"Sloppy work, in other words, with a badly designed experiment with no controls, and sensationalist conclusions that don't follow from the results. The kind of work that a reputable research journal would quickly reject. Except, apparently, when it's in the "News" section."

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3. Anonymous on October 4, 2013 8:40 AM writes...

Well this puts to bed the notion that this is only a problem in China. This is absolutely pandemic, and horrifying.

I guess/hope that with this issues being exposed in this manner, there will be much more scrutiny of people's publication records by recruiters and hiring managers, so that those with dodgy papers will quickly be eliminated from consideration, and this "black science market" will be killed off.

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4. road on October 4, 2013 8:44 AM writes...

News flash: crappy journals publish crappy papers!

Nothing to see here...

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5. Anonymous on October 4, 2013 8:50 AM writes...

"News flash: crappy journals publish crappy papers!"

I agree, but crappy journals publish complete lies that could be spotted by a high school scientist? And so many of them?

Now that is news!

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6. MoMo on October 4, 2013 8:53 AM writes...

He should of kept this quiet- he probably would have gotten collaborative research offers from Pharma.

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7. Teddy Z on October 4, 2013 8:56 AM writes...

Funny, I posted on a related topic this morning...Conferences in China using the likenesses of those not even speaking to attract attendeess.

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8. Virgil on October 4, 2013 9:00 AM writes...

As is being Twittered and blogged elsewhere, there are some pretty HUGE problems with this, which are being missed by the mainstream scientific media in its reporting....

1) It's a news piece by a journalist, NOT a peer reviewed scientific paper.

2) There was no "control" group (i.e., non open access, non predatory journals). I would bet this would get into some higher up journals if only he'd tried.

3) There's no analysis whatsover - did the acceptance correlate with impact factor for example? What was the average review time? How many reviewers (just one, just editorial review, or more).

4) This is not about open access, that just happens to be in the title.

5) This borders on human subjects/outcomes research, but the author is not at a university, does not have IRB approval, did not get any kind of informed consent from the persons involved. As such, it's easy to see why this would be inadmissible as a research paper.

If you or I had done this and tried to get it published in Science, we would be crucified, but apparently if you're a journalist then the standards don't apply. So yeah, maybe if the headline was "hoity toity old media giant, feeling the pressure from open access, tried to pull one over on their new business rivals", then I'd be more inclined to believe it.

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9. Curious Wavefunction on October 4, 2013 9:09 AM writes...

I have lost count of how many "journals" have emailed me for an opportunity to publish in their august pages; being clearly uninterested in career advancement I turned these attractive offers down.

This is a scandal indeed, and it affects lesser known, struggling researchers in developing countries more than anyone else. Ironically as the experiment shows, most of the scandal is run out of the developing countries themselves so they are really shooting themselves in the foot here.

#8: Just because a story is not published in peer-reviewed journals does not mean it's not valid. By that token every story in the New Yorker would be considered to have giant holes in it. Yes, the standards for journalists and scientists are different, but that does not make journalists' work any less valid or important.

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10. Anonymous on October 4, 2013 9:23 AM writes...

I agree with Virgil. Note that this study has been published in Science WITHOUT a control experiment. The latter should have been done by submitting the bogus manuscript to the same number of non-OA journals. What is this telling us about the scientific competence of editors of high-impact journals?

I feel like submitting the same article signed by the most famous scientist in that field. Any bet on what percentage of respectable journals would accept it with minor corrections?

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11. a. nonymaus on October 4, 2013 9:48 AM writes...

"The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier."

Elsevier up to dodgy antics? I'm shocked and must lay down for a bit; take me to the fainting couch.

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12. Anonymous on October 4, 2013 10:06 AM writes...

If you have ever had an online "discussion" of climate change, or evolution or vaccines infinitum, then you have run into these journals, that get trotted out as "peer reviewed". Yes I agree that there are problems with the authors methodologies, but the point is well known among those of us that comment on some of the aforementioned topics.

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13. The Iron Chemist on October 4, 2013 10:44 AM writes...

"But I'm sure that there's another subset of authors who don't realize that they're submitting their results into a compost pile, and being asked to pay for the privilege."

It's a bit like hearing about people falling for a Nigerian email scam. At some point, you have to wonder how on earth these people could possibly be suckered into this.

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14. Anonymous on October 4, 2013 10:47 AM writes...

The thing that gets me most is that you could use this 'peer-reviewed publication' to market your bogus cancer treatment to desperate patients.

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15. Van Gogh on October 4, 2013 11:07 AM writes...

I also wonder which kind of comments it got from the reviewers: did they ask for straight rejection or polite "major revisions"? On which grounds, i.e. was the scam spotted some times?
Now, what I'm eagerly waiting for are 1- fraudulent papers copying-pasting it and 2- citations (it is published after all) to support findings from serious projects.

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16. TheBrummell on October 4, 2013 12:29 PM writes...

Virgil: "5) This borders on human subjects/outcomes research, but the author is not at a university, does not have IRB approval, did not get any kind of informed consent from the persons involved. As such, it's easy to see why this would be inadmissible as a research paper."

It does? I am woefully ignorant about IRB processes and what kind of study needs / does not need IRB approval because of human subjects. But I didn't see any human subjects or outcomes in the piece - unless you count the mentioned editors who spouted off about trust - completely missing the irony of their own words in the process.

Why would someone need to get IRB approval to expose fraud or other scams?

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17. John on October 4, 2013 12:56 PM writes...

I'm read this to my wife and her first response was: Wasn't that arsenic-based bacteria paper published in Science.

I think it's also important to mention that Science has a bit of an interest in establishing a difference between themselves and the plebeian-joournals.

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18. Scholander on October 4, 2013 1:08 PM writes...

@Van Gogh: They weren't actually published in the end. The fake author retracted it immediately after acceptance.

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19. Curt F. on October 4, 2013 1:46 PM writes...

This another fine example of fraud as a research technique. Or, to be more precise, a journalistic technique. As interesting as the data is, I find the manner in which it was obtained to be unethical and annoying because it involves intentional deception of the editors and manuscript reviewers of the research community. And the manner of the deception wastes the time these community members.

Many commenters here have probably spent time reviewing papers for journals. How would you like it if discovered a paper you were assigned to review was a fraud cooked up by a journalist to "sting" you?

The fact is, the editors and reviewers that spent time on these bogus manuscripts *are* human subjects, but they were *not* informed of the study; much less did they consent. Commenter Virgil is right that in many instances IRB approval would be necessary to conduct these sorts of studies. An example is Rand Ghayad's study last year on employer consideration of resumes of the long term unemployed. His study involved fraudulently submitting bogus resumes to various job postings. (Click my name-link to go to a blog post with discussion of this study.) Since he was at a University, he did have to obtain IRB approval for his study. It isn't clear to me how IRB approval was obtained, since in that case too, informed consent was not obtained from research subjects. I wrote to Northeastern University's IRB to ask them about these issues, but they never responded.

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20. Validated Target on October 4, 2013 1:52 PM writes...

@4 and 5: News flash: crappy journals publish crappy papers!

So-called "reputable" journals publish many totally crappy papers that wouldn't stand up to unbiased CRITICAL reviews but Editors can favor their pals and even overrule negative reviews. I am NOT talking about the famous cases (arsenic eating bacteria, etc.). I'm talking about worthless, poorly done studies with catchy titles and simplistic conclusions that will get cited but not read. I've seen it; it still happens; it makes me sick.

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21. Curt F. on October 4, 2013 1:56 PM writes...

@16. TheBrummell. Note that plenty of open access journals rejected his fraudulent articles. Does this guy Bohannon feel the least bit bad about wasting the time of those journals' editors, reviewers, and publishers?

If someone at a cocktail party tells you, "I cheat on my taxes ALL the time, EVERY year, and I NEVER get audited," does that really tell you more about the IRS or about the kind of person you're talking to?

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22. The Iron Chemist on October 4, 2013 2:00 PM writes...

Michael Eisen had an interesting response to all of this that also brought up the issue of what's going on in non-OA journals:

I'd agree with him in that there do seem to be lackadaisical, poorly informed, and/or over-burdened referees. What percentage of the referee pool this amounts to is open for debate. Since this hasn't been mentioned, I'd also add that there is likely a strong bias towards superstar researchers. I've seen countless molecules in high-profile journals that lack the fundamental characterization supposedly required for publication, even when the stuff is made in gram quantities.

I would, however, counter the whole "non-OA journals are as bad as OA journals" theme with the fact that the non-OA journals don't have as strong an incentive to accept EVERYTHING that gets sent in. Does a crappy paper get accepted due to the incompetence of reviewers or the dishonesty of the publisher?

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23. Objective on October 4, 2013 3:17 PM writes...

@8 and @10 - totally agree.

Regardless of where a paper is published, the AUTHOR and his/her manuscript are linked -- through their merit and integrity.

Journals like Science feel that
their existence is threatened. Even with peer-review -- their are lots of Bogus papers in Nature and Science.

One can envision a scenario where OPEN ACCESS journals are offering a platform for Authors to take responsibility for their reputation and publish "without peer-review". If the science merits -- it will automatically stand scrutiny over time. Authors will suffer bad reputation - if they publish garbage and this will bear itself out.

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24. TheBrummell on October 4, 2013 3:38 PM writes...

Curt (#19, #21), I still don't see it. I suppose the lying inherent in Bohannon's approach is on the wrong side of a fuzzy ethical line, but not by much. Perhaps some sort of oversight would have been appropriate.

But, he also points out that he strongly suspects very little time was actually wasted, due to the obvious nature of the flaws he put into the spoof paper. The ethanol thing stands out to me - anybody, even somebody with zero training in chemistry or biology, should be able to at least suggest in a critical review that perhaps the lack of effect (note the lack of effect, apparent in the figure but not in the text of the spoof paper, is itself a giant red flag) is due to the widely-known toxic effects of ethanol.

This is not a case of hiding clever easter eggs deep in a paper trying to trip up a group of basically honest and competent scientists and editors, it's handing someone a bag of garbage with the word "candy" painted on the side.

And I don't see the parallel with some random person at a cocktail party who tells me about their taxes. That part reads like a non-sequitor to me.

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25. MoMo on October 4, 2013 3:55 PM writes...

I don't buy your vitriolic argument Curt F.,

The fact that a bright journalist caught them all off-guard with their ink-stained greedy money-grubbing mechanisms and hands outstreched is a breath of fresh air.

Journals need policed while were fleeced.

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26. partial agonist on October 4, 2013 4:24 PM writes...

Complain all you want about the reputable journals, but I have to think that most of them would at least catch a fake name, a fake department, in a fake school,

somewhere in the process.

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27. dave w on October 4, 2013 4:55 PM writes...

Seems to me that the concept of "publication" with respect to scientific papers is
obsolescent... the original value of a journal was to take manuscripts and print
them up for physical distribution; now that one can post a PDF on the internet (and
set up for "blog comments" if desired), the only value still added by the traditional
model is the prestige of "Publication in a Reviewed Journal": and the sort of observation
presented here suggests that this value is often illusory.

(In other words, if the journals - as presently implemented - were to disappear,
the main impact would be less to the actual ability to present and distribute
information to each other, than to the ability to claim brownie points for one's
"publication count"...)


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28. Curt F. on October 4, 2013 9:13 PM writes...

MoMo, thanks for the reply. As you can maybe guess, I think your argument is more than a bit vitriolic too. But even so, let's say your right, and that every journal that was caught publishing the fraudulent papers is just an example of "ink-stained greedy money-grubbing mechanisms and hands outstreched".

You realize that still leaves at least 98 journals that rejected the paper, or about a third of the total, right? 98 journals that wasted their time and effort rejecting Bohannon's self-professed fraud. For example, PLoS One rejected the paper. Do you think the PLoS reviewers would say that Bohannon has "done us all a favor"? I don't.

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29. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on October 4, 2013 9:16 PM writes...

I don't see the IRB angle as some have mentioned. Does Google get IRB approval in collecting data from human subjects? Does a political polling company have to get IRB approval to do a poll? Does a teacher have to have IRB approval to test his/her subjects? Lots of other examples that could demonstrate absurdity reductio absurdum (my Latin probably isn't tip top). It seems to me that IRB only applies to medical intervention. IRB approval for surveying the degree of fraud in the world is bunk. There is no medical intervention going on here. Ticked off editors for wasting time? Likely.

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30. Nuclear Option on October 5, 2013 1:08 AM writes...

John Bohannon = Evridiki Gerou? Just sayin.

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31. meagain on October 5, 2013 3:46 AM writes...

I come to this with no great surprise, but then I've no affection for the open publishing (author pays) model, and I don't buy the argument that somehow the internet makes reader-pay journals obsolete. It's true that Science has a vested interest, but we all have a vested interest in proper peer review.

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32. Anonymous on October 5, 2013 4:52 AM writes...

"Do you think the PLoS reviewers would say that Bohannon has "done us all a favor"?"

Yes, absolutely, the PLoS reviewers will be delighted to have such public endorsement of the quality of their work to show that it stands way above the rest of the crap that is out there. It validates their otherwise hidden efforts, and shows people that what they do is actually very important.

This is no different from a food critic going into a PLoS "restaurant" under cover, and writing a great review of the quality of their food. If I was a PLoS reviewer I would be delighted.

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33. Janne on October 5, 2013 5:47 AM writes...

#31: "[...] I've no affection for the open publishing (author pays) model,"

Author pays is not restricted to open access publications. Many closed access journals — including some highly ranked ones — also require page charges, and steep ones. A study a few years ago determined that at the time the average charges were actually higher for closed journals than for open access ones.

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34. Anonymous on October 5, 2013 5:55 AM writes...

Perhaps we should all just publish our papers here at In The Pipeline and review in the comments?

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35. Anonymous on October 5, 2013 12:14 PM writes...

I think I just found another spoof paper directly insulting the standards of modern science publishing:
Authors main thesis is "Upregulated expression of H3K27me3 protein". There is no such thing. There are many variants of histone 3 which can be expressed. H3K27me3 is post-translation modification. It can not be expressed. And this paper should not be accepted.
Alas, it is most likely not a spoof but an "important contribution to Scince" by Guangzhou university(ies)

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36. Curt F. on October 5, 2013 3:54 PM writes...

@32. Anonymous. I understand where you are coming from but you're a restaurant reviewer is in apt. Restaurant reviewers pay for their meal. The restaurant is compensated for serving the meal, and it presumably the wages of the employees required to deliver the service. The review is incidental to the transaction, which both the restaurant and secret reviewer agree to ahead of time.

Submitting papers to OA journals is not like that. You don't pay until it's time to publish. All the work of most journal editors and all journal reviewers is done on a volunteer basis anyway. They do the work out of a desire to serve a particular research community. A core assumption is that this community will submit manuscripts in good faith, which is obviously not the way that Bohannon and Science News like to roll.

Your analogy would for better if instead of a restaurant, it was dinner at a friend's house.

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37. Curt F. on October 5, 2013 3:58 PM writes...

Well I wrote that last comment on my phone. Sorry to everyone for the many many errors.

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38. SynChemSyn on October 5, 2013 3:58 PM writes...

No surprise whatsoever - just a waste of time for reviewers and others involved. What is flawed is the pseudo-scientific several-page article on the subject published in Science.

As for awfully poor, entirely fabricated papers, the best example I know is the fictional synthesis of hexacyclinol published by La Clair in early 2006 (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 2769).

Even though the fraud was obvious and fully exposed everywhere within weeks after the article was published, I just realized that it took Angewandte six and a half years!! before eventually retracting it (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2012, 51, 11647).

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39. aoeu on October 5, 2013 4:58 PM writes...

@Curt F.: While we're on the subject of wasting time, let's talk about the countless hours wasted by researchers placing their trust in published, supposedly peer-reviewed work that, for some reason, doesn't seem to work now that you're trying it.

What a huge waste of time it is when I find an experimental procedure in a paper that passed peer review, try it myself, and find that my results are nothing like the author's.

The (in most cases brief) inconvenience that these fake papers caused for some 300 reviewers pales in comparison to all the time wasted by probably every graduate student since publishing became a thing, who angrily scanned through a lazily peer-reviewed paper trying to figure out why the reaction isn't working like it says it should.

This editorial is not rigorous and should not be treated as such, but I will in the future very much appreciate how much time i'm saving by avoiding the journals that accepted this obviously flawed paper.

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40. Nat on October 6, 2013 5:20 AM writes...

That's a lot of work to stroke one's own ego. Some places look at the name and subject and accept the paper, some look at the check. Same end result, to make lost of money

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41. Anonymous on October 6, 2013 5:38 AM writes...

@36: True, that's a fair point, but...

@39: That's an even better point than #36.

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42. Anonymous on October 6, 2013 6:35 AM writes...

@41: I agree: This wasted no time for the journals that did not bother to review properly, while those that did spend time to review properly have got way than a few hours value worth of marketing, to show they are better quality than the majority.

I wonder how many of the journals went ahead and published anyway, even *after* the retraction. That would show the real worst ones...

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43. Scholander on October 6, 2013 8:46 AM writes...

dave w (#27): That makes an amazing amount of sense!

With inflation of value of publication count, it is literally impossible to keep track of the current literature. It would be amazing if "the literature" was following researchers' lab's progress online. Reliable journals like Science and Nature