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Outside the Lab Profession

Perilous Peer Review

Those of us based in the UK have a tough decision on our hands. Do we stay or do we go? Unsurprisingly, the so-called “Brexit” is dominating headlines – and as decision day looms, the volume and ferocity of the arguments will ramp up. There’s already a lot of scaremongering, underhand politics and most frustratingly of all… unanswered questions. Sadly, transparency is not usually associated with government politics, and while listening to yet another government spokesperson on the radio failing to answer the questions posed, I thought about parallels in scientific publishing.

The rules for transparency in the field have tightened a great deal over recent years – and rightly so. As a result, the majority of scientific research papers submitted for peer review are rejected, but a growing number of papers that do make it through are open access – though still not enough, in my view. Nevertheless, I can see this model increasing substantially over the next few years. Certainly, there’s room for improvement in the peer review model, but I’d like to think that what we do read is accurate, is based on sound evidence, and is a complete representation of the research (warts and all). Or is it?

The move away from the traditional print-only journal-publishing model has been a boon for science, but has created fear among some publishers; note Elsevier’s recent attempts to sue Sci-Hub, which backlashed and instead increased public awareness (1). The new trend towards open access (along with the costs that are passed onto authors to make research freely available), has sadly, however, also created a system that’s ripe for misuse. According to a study by Finnish researchers, so-called “predatory publishers” made around $75 million last year (2). As part of their research, they combed a list of discredited journals and they did the math (3). According to the curator of the list, Jeffrey Beall, these are journals that carry fake impact factors, promise a one-week peer review, and overlook plagiarism. Worryingly, the number of papers published by these journals has increased from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 in 2014! Though the Finnish team found the problem to be highly contained in just a few countries (mainly developing nations in Asia, with India accounting for the majority), we can’t assume that the predatory publishing trend won’t become more widespread. Heated competition makes publishing research increasingly difficult – and given that career progress and funding is often tied to impressive publication credentials, it’s easy to see why taking such a risky approach might appeal to some.

So if you’re ever tempted by a journal with a fast turnaround “peer-review” process and guaranteed acceptance of your research, it’s worth remembering the old idiom: “when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Fedra Pavlou

Editor

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  1. techdirt, “As predicted, Elsevier’s attempt to silence Sci-Hub has increased public awareness massively”, Accessed March 22, 2016. bit.ly/1R9f1tC
  2. C Shen, BC Björk, “’Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics”, BMC Med, 13, 230 (2015). PMID: 2642306.
  3. Beall’s List, Accessed March 8, 2016 at scholarlyoa.com/publishers/
About the Author
Fedra Pavlou

After graduating with a pharmacology degree, I began my career in scientific publishing and communications. Now with more than 16 years of experience in this field, my career has seen me heading up editorial and writing teams at Datamonitor, Advanstar and KnowledgePoint360 group. My past experiences have taught me something very important – that you have to enjoy working with, and have respect for your colleagues. It’s this that drew me to Texere where I now work with old colleagues and new. Though we are a hugely diverse team, we share several things in common – a real desire to work hard to succeed, to be the best at what we do, never to settle for second best, and to have fun while we do it. I am now honored to serve as Editor of The Pathologist and Editorial Director of Texere Publishing.

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