October 9, 2013

John Bohannon’s Open Access sting paper annoys many, scares the easily scared, accomplishes relatively little


A honey-bee stinger in close-up. Terrors!

There have been many great stings in history. For instance, that time when two guys invented a great unknown Australian modernist poet and his complete works in an afternoon. But John Bohannon’s Open Access sting is not one of them.

Bohannon, an Oxford-educated biologist and science journalist, roiled the academic world last week when he revealed, in a story for Science magazine, that a fraudulent paper he had written about a lichen molecule that seemed to have cancer-fighting properties had been accepted by 157 online OA journals, though the author, his credentials, his institution, and his data were completely invented, and the paper was marked by many other indicators of bad science, such as faulty conclusions drawn from graphs and data plots.

There are a lot of disturbing aspects of this story: for one thing, it acted as both an imitation of and an opportunity to shame academic practice in the developing world, since Bohannon posed as a team of researchers from an obscure university in Eritrea (and even ran his paper through Google Translate, into French and then back into English again, to make the English sound suitably non-native), and then, on the other end, discovered that the vast majority of his acceptances came from India and Nigeria.

And of course, the ramifications of the sting are deeply problematic: if bad science makes its way into scholarly respectability, either because of a breakdown in peer review or because of pay-to-publish models without checks, it’s hard to eliminate and can become the justification for bad policy and bad medicine (not to mention bad academic careers, propped up by dubious publishing credentials). In an article for NPR‘s “Shots” column, Richard Knox voiced these concerns, writing that “The result should trouble doctors, patients, policymakers and anyone who has a stake in the integrity of science (and who doesn’t?).”

But, as many commentators have pointed out, Bohannon’s sting has some major problems itself—most glaringly, the fact that he didn’t submit the paper to any traditional subscription journals. Which means that this supposed indictment of open access publishing (which it will inevitably be taken as, despite Bohannon’s pretty feeble objections otherwise) gives no sense of how blameless traditional publishing is on these counts.

The debate over Bohannon’s results is ongoing and can be followed in places like Peter Suber’s posts (Suber is longtime advocate for OA, and the creator of the extremely important and exhaustive SPARC Open Access newsletter) and the dinosaur/OA blog Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week, which has a round-up of responses and a scathing take on the case itself (did I mention how much I like Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week? Wins the internet. Wins it.)

A few conclusions can, however, be drawn so far:

1) Science is not doing itself any favors with this stunt. In fact, the large numbers of academics who have pointed out how very unscience-y the sting paper is, and how Science‘s publishing of its results draws into question their own processes of peer review suggests this whole thing is going into a dangerously self-reflexive downward spiral. But seriously, how did they think that they, as a subscription-based journal, could get away with this? A study that produces a result that supports the publishing model in which you publish this result is never going to seem particularly lily-white. And Science isn’t immune to bogus shit either.

2) Shady OA journals are to be congratulated on how quickly they’ve learned the ropes from shady traditional journals.

3) Dancing your PhD — which Bohannon suggested we all do, at a TED Talk a couple of years ago — is not going to save you from the enraged ranks of academics whose sense of humor about such things has been severely compromised by journal prices so high that even Harvard can no longer afford them. Dancing is not enough, John, it’s just not. Also, we’ve seen your dancing.

4) Bohannon does not know the difference between Gold and Green OA (briefly, Gold OA involves paying processing fees upfront to a journal that has accepted an academic paper, a payment that’s usually, but  not always, covered by an academic’s employer; Green OA involves depositing one’s papers in an institutional or subject repository before, during, or after publication). Nor does he care. Subtlety is not for this man. See the moment at 1:29 in the above video.

5) The bank accounts of academic journals, which Bohannon mapped to see where the money was actually going, are like “Syriana” but with more footnotes, and someone needs to get on that, fast. Here’s the map, the single thing I am glad to see come out of this (and searchable in 3-D here).



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.