A few days ago, we learned that another spoof paper (PDF) had been accepted to an ostensibly peer reviewed journal. The paper was a simple repetition of the words “Get me off your f***ing mailing list” for 10 pages, complete with section headings and appropriate figures.Figure 2 from the spoof paper

The paper was accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, which promotes its tiered and highly selective review process on its website. The journal asked for a $150 publishing fee, so the article was never published.

IJACT's review process

IJACT's review process

Journals like IJACT are often called “predatory journals,” journals that accept anything, as long as you are willing to pay the publication fee. While subject experts can easily see through the poor writing and low quality science of the articles on the site, novice readers (such as students or others with a general interest in science) don’t always have the expertise to make this distinction.

And to a novice, a journal like IJACT looks a lot like other scientific journals:

  • scholarly journals contain articles with complex sounding titles
  • scholarly journals have (somewhat) nicely formatted PDF documents
  • scholarly journals describe a rigorous peer review process
  • scholarly journals rarely include access to the written reviews of the paper

Predatory publishers can get away with claiming a rigorous review process because traditional peer review is shrouded in secrecy. The reader sees the same amount of evidence about the peer review process from both high quality journals and predatory journals: a statement about the process on their website.

A skeptical reader might try to find out more about the journal: where is it indexed, what metrics are associated with it, who is on the editorial board? But a typical user won’t go through all of this effort and accept the piece at face value. And even a skeptical reader would find it impossible (at most journals) to understand the peer review standards employed or the criteria reviewers use: this information is rarely available to users.

Some journals, like PeerJ and F1000Research, are making reviews more visible. This kind of transparency is a great way to combat the “predatory” journals. Users can see if a manuscript received a cursory look or a detailed review. They can see changes that were made between various drafts of the research. This process is central to modern science, but an outsider usually can’t see it at work.

Greater transparency will be one important aspect of improving the peer review system.

See also:

Couzin-Frankel, J. (2013). Secretive and subjective, peer review proves resistant to study. Science, 341, 1331. doi:10.1126/science.341.6152.1331

Hopewell, S., Collins, G. S., Boutron, I., Yu, L.-M., Cook, J., Shanyinde, M., … Altman, D. G. (2014). Impact of peer review on reports of randomised trials published in open peer review journals: Retrospective before and after study. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 349, g4145. doi:10.1136/bmj.g4145

Kriegeskorte, N. (2012). Open evaluation: A vision for entirely transparent post-publication peer review and rating for science. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 6, 79. doi:10.3389/fncom.2012.00079

Leek, J. T., Taub, M. a, & Pineda, F. J. (2011). Cooperation between referees and authors increases peer review accuracy. PloS ONE, 6(11), e26895. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026895

Van Rooyen, S., Delamothe, T., & Evans, S. J. W. (2010). Effect on peer review of telling reviewers that their signed reviews might be posted on the web: randomised controlled trial. BMJ, 341, c5729. doi:10.1136/bmj.c5729

Vinther, S., Nielsen, O. H., Rosenberg, J., Keiding, N., & Schroeder, T. V. (2012). Same review quality in open versus blinded peer review in “Ugeskrift for Læger.” Danish Medical Journal, 59(8), A4479.