Open Access Journals: The Light and Dark Sides

Open Access Journals: The Light and Dark Sides

Merry Christmas!

Nope, this blog post has nothing to do with Christmas…

In another one of my posts written recently (Japanese only), I talked about a mysterious incident revolving around journal articles. I must say that this year is (also) a year filled with news and chatter from the world of publication.

So let me give you a summary of the issues I felt strongly about this year with regard to publications.

In the incident that I wrote about earlier on, somebody plagarised content that was presented at a scientific conference, wrote a paper with that content using the name of a researcher who does not even exist, submitted it to a journal and had it published. While plagarism of articles or fabrication of data happens frequently, unfortunately, this case was peculiar in that a paper with correct contents was published without permission, under the name of a researcher who does not exist. It makes you wonder, who benefitted from such an act? This case was said to be the first of its kind but from a tweet from someone who had read the article, it was brought to my attention that in fact, a similar incident occurred in our country (Japan) just a few years ago.

I cannot help but feel that there’s some kind of connection between the two incidents because both involved the Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications journal. Moreover, I am shocked that there are multiple incidents with acts that show contempt for the original reasearchers.

In any case, I thank the person who tweeted me. We at Chem Station read through tweets (yes, we do) so please continue to give us your comments and feedback.

Moving on to the next issue, I would like to talk about Open Access Journals, a hot topic in recent times. You may already know this but the number of Open Access Journals has been increasing exponentially in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down. Usually, journal articles can only be read by subscribers. Publishers either make a business out of subscription, or by the participation fees they collect at conferences that they hold. On the other hand, for Open Access Journals, authors pay a fee to get their work published and readers get access to this work for free.

Some argue that since part of most research is funded by tax payers’ money, tax-paying citizens have a right to know about the results of these research, and limiting such information to the small circle of researchers who pay a subscription fee to publishers seems to be an issue from the viewpoint of public welfare. Recently, if a research has obtained support/grants from the NIH in the US, it is mandatory for articles related to that research to be made open access after one year from publication.

It may not be very common in the field of Chemistry but it is apparently the norm to pay to get your papers published in the field of Biology. Therefore, the business model of Open Access Journals came from the field of Biology. A representative of this model is PLoS ONEwhich had apparently published 23,464 papers last year.

Publishers of Open Access Journals will profit more if they publish more so it is only natural that the acceptance rate is high. It is said that PLoS ONE‘s acceptance rate is approximately 70%. As long as the fundamental scientific methods are followed, the paper is accepted. Results are not a deciding factor. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. with an acceptance rate of 21% last year. I think it is obvious that there is a huge difference between the two acceptance rates.

With such a high acceptance rate, one wonders whether the quality of the papers will be compromised. While there is no direct relation between impact factor and quality, PLoS ONE’s impact factor is around 4, which seems reasonable for a journal with so many papers published.

So to find out more, I submitted a paper with real content to PLoS ONE. Unfortunately, it was not about Chemistry but objectively speaking, it was a paper that would be accepted by a journal of moderate standards. I thought it would be accepted readily but the reviewers had some rather strong comments and I was slightly perplexed. I complained to a person I was collaborating with that if such strong comments were warranted, then what’s the point of making the journal one with open access? In the end, I added extra data based on the comments received and the paper was accepted without problems.

The publication fee for authors from developed countries is $1350 and after spliting the bill with my collaborator, it was not an amount that I could not afford to pay. In fact, some journals get you to pay for copies of the paper and if you take that into consideration, the amount I had to pay for publication in PLoS ONE was not that all expensive.

In a nutshell, the peer review process is in place even for this journal that is open access. However, the same cannot be said for all Open Access Journals. There was an investigation report on Science that was of great interest.

Who's Afraid of Peer Review?
 John Bohannon
 Science 342, 60-65 (2013). doi: 10.1126/science.342.6154.60

The aim of the investigation was to reveal the fact that many Open Access Journals do not have a proper peer review process.

In order to do this, first, a fake paper was prepared. What’s impressive about this investigation was that they did not just prepare one fake paper but prepared various fake papers that all had the same gist. The paper was about a chemical compound that was effective against cancer but with data that even high school students can understand showing otherwise. It would be obvious that it was not the chemical compound that was effective against cancer cells but the unbelievable concentrations of ethanol used in the study that was causing the cytotoxic effect.

To make the study more questionable (with no intention of being discriminatory), African author names and institution names were used. In addition, Google Translate was used to first translate the English text into French and then back into English to make it look like it was written by a non-native English speaker.

Then, 304 Open Access Journals that seemed to have even the slightest connection to each other were picked and the fake papers were submitted to them. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a website, was used in choosing the journals.

There is another list known as Beall’s list that was created by Jeffrey Beall of Colorado University. It is a list of suspicious Open Access Journals that for example, do not list the fee required to publish, do not state clearly their policy for editing, and have unclear English. Journals that do not meet a certain requirement set by Beall will end up in this list. It is best not to get involved with journals in this list. It may be wise to even reject any requests for peer reviews from these journals. This is because if you accept a request, they may put you on the editorial board without prior permission and even if you tried to get them to remove your name from the board, they may not do so.

Beall's List and DOAJFigure obtained from the Science article

The investigation results from Science are represented using pie charts shown in the figure. From January to August, 10 fake papers were submitted each week, and 157 Journals accepted the papers after an average of just 40 days. Only 98 journals rejected the papers (after an average of 24 days). Close to 30 out of the remaining 50-odd journals had sites that seemed to be abandoned. Shockingly, about 60% of papers submitted appeared to be not subjected to the peer review process. This figure is higher than expected because most Open Access Journals claim to have a peer review process. Only 36 papers had proper reviews (in other words, the scientific errors in the fake paper was pointed out) but in spite of these comments, 16 out of the 36 were accepted by the editor.

While the results of the investigation were kind of expected, they cast a dark shadow on the future of Open Access Journals. I feel really sad that the world is rampant with malicious people, or rather, people who exploit science. It’s still forgivable if they had no bad intentions and were just ignorant about science but it is regrettable that this is a phenomenon that is not limited to India, China or Africa. The Kobe Journal of Medical Sciences, a journal published by Kobe University’s Medicine Faculty, was flagged in the Science investigation. This is indeed a “science-free” situation.

Everyone agrees that open access is a good thing. The question is how to achieve it.
David Roos, University of Pennsylvania

Nature recently published an article regarding the dark side of Open Access Journals. In it, there were some rules that we should follow when choosing a journal to submit to, and I would like to share them with you.

Buyer beware: A checklist to identify reputable publishers (Taken from Nature article)
 Declan Butler
 Nature 495, 433–435 (28 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495433a

How to perform due diligence before submitting to a journal or publisher.

  •  Check that the publisher provides full, verifiable contact information, including address, on the journal site. Be cautious of those that provide only web contact forms.
  • Check that a journal’s editorial board lists recognized experts with full affiliations. Contact some of them and ask about their experience with the journal or publisher.
  • Check that the journal prominently displays its policy for author fees.
  • Be wary of e-mail invitations to submit to journals or to become editorial board members.
  • Read some of the journal’s published articles and assess their quality. Contact past authors to ask about their experience.
  • Check that a journal’s peer-review process is clearly described and try to confirm that a claimed impact factor is correct.
  • Find out whether the journal is a member of an industry association that vets its members, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals ( or the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (
  • Use common sense, as you would when shopping online: if something looks fishy, proceed with caution.

Well then, who are the people who are submitting papers to these unreliable journals? What comes to mind are people who need to inflate their academic achievements or people who use the number of papers published as a way to get an acadmic degree. In other words, the motive is self-centred. They probably think of it as some kind of investment and think that as long as they pay some money, things will be all right.

Another reason for publishing in these non-credible journals would be to target the normal guy on the street (i.e., consumers). Anything that is even remotely scientific can get published in these Open Access Journals, so this is ideal for adding prestige to products that one wants to sell. In the world we live in, even products that are obviously strange become reliable if they have been presented at a (scientific) conference so if a product makes it into a published paper, the effects are even greater.

2012 was the year of the predatory publisher; that was when they really exploded.

It is a huge mistake to think that these shady Open Access Journals would exit the scene after a matter of time. They started making headlines only in recent years but the number of Open Access Journals has increased rapidly since 2012. It is said that more than 1000 are born each year. With so many of them appearing and disappearing all the time, it is difficult to drive them out of the scene completely. As long as the demand for them exists, they will continue to exist. There is nothing we can do by relying on just the morals of researchers.

There is no stopping the wave of open access. PLoS ONE accepted a chemistry paper so my dear readers, why don’t you consider submitting your next paper to them?

Finally, I would like to tell you what the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Randy W. Schekman had to say. The original article is here.

Schekman is undoubtedly a top-class scientist. In the past, he has published in NatureCell, and Science, what is also known as the NCS. However, he said that in recent years, researchers have been competing with each other to publish in journals with high impact factors and as a result, they falsify data or cut corners for many papers. Therefore, it is not uncommon for retractions due to fraud to occur on NCS. (DNA with Arsenic, anyone?)

He is of the opinion that scientific papers should be published as long as they are correct, just like they do at the eLife journal, for which Schekman is Editor-in-Chief. He has declared that he will never submit another paper to NCS again from now on.

His words should carry some weight and influence many because he is a Nobel Prize winner. But he can probably make such a declaration because he is a Nobel Prize Winner. Even if I were to imitate Schekman and declare, “I will not submit to NCS!”, it would be in vain. (By the way, I have submitted papers to two within the NCS before. The results of which are…)

The topics in this post have been heavy and it’s not going to do any of us any good to keep thinking about such stuff. Well then, let’s look forward to what topics for science and chemistry next year would bring. Let us welcome the new year with such anticipation. Have a good new year, everyone!

This post is an English translation of the original blog post written in Japanese. The original post can be found here.

  • Related Books

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