The integrity of the scientific basis of medicine is under attack from numerous fronts. It is not only the intrusion of pseudoscience and mysticism into mainstream institutions of medicine, but also attempts to distort or game the scientific process for ideological and financial reasons.

Ideological groups such as the anti-vaccine movement, or grassroots organizations promoting pseudodiseases such as chronic Lyme, electromagnetic sensitivity, or Morgellon’s often misrepresent the scientific evidence while they lobby for special privilege to avoid the science-based standard of care within medicine.

Pharmaceutical companies, with billions on the line, have been very creative in figuring out ways to optimize their chances of getting FDA approval for their drugs, and then promoting their drugs to the medical community. Ghost-writing white papers, hiding negative trials, and designing trials to maximize positive outcomes have all been documented.

And of course there is now a vibrant subculture of “alternative” medicine proponents with their own journals, training programs, NIH center, and even their own privileged regulations existing in parallel to science-based medicine, distorting and subverting the process of science in countless ways, carefully documented over the last few years on SBM.

Now, it seems, we have a new source of pseudoscience to contend with, outlined in a recent article in The New York Times – open-access journals.

We have spoken mostly positively about online open-access journals. They allow for more transparent publication of scientific articles which are accessible to the general public, bringing science publishing into the 21st century. More access to information is generally a good thing, especially with an institution like science that requires openness and robust communication.

What typically happens is that we go into these new adventures, like the internet, the world wide web, social media, and now open-access journals, with naïve optimism about the potential new media. Then the con-artists and profiteers come in and exploit the new medium for selfish gain. I guess that is the unavoidable nature of any open society. Now we have to contend with the dark side of open-access scientific journals.

Here is how the scam works, according to the NYT article: Individuals or companies create an open-access online journal and try to give it the trappings of legitimacy. They give it an impressive sounding name, and sometimes give it a name that is very close to that of an established journal, hoping that it will be mistaken for the legitimate one. They invite recognized professionals onto their editorial board, and often enough naïve professors and researchers, hoping to support new open-access journals, sign on. Creating an impressive-looking website is now a simple task, requiring a relatively small investment for a company.

These journals then spam e-mail professors and researchers soliciting articles from them. After articles are submitted they then hit them with an author’s fee, which can be as much as several thousand dollars. Open-access journals often charge the authors a fee to publish because they do not charge readers subscriptions – that is the whole point of being open-access. So superficially the whole thing looks legit.

Such journals, however, have been described as “predatory” because of the aggressive way they solicit articles and the deceptive nature of how they pack their editorial boards and charge author fees.

The big problem is that they often lack a quality peer-review process. They will often publish anything, as long as you pay the fee. The result is that they are flooding the literature with poor quality papers which are difficult to weed out from the rest because they are doing a good job of hiding in the herd, by camouflaging themselves with the trappings of legitimacy.

For those attempting to research a medical topic, doing an online search has become much more difficult. Unless you are intimately familiar with all the journals in your field, you will likely get poor-quality results mixed in with the legitimate articles, and they will be difficult to recognize because they are convincing mimics.

The problem of bogus open-access journals is essentially the same as the more general problem of the web and social media – the field is crowded with fraud, biased sources, and simple mediocrity. There is no traditional editorial filter in place, no hurdle of getting past a publisher or editor. Lowering the barriers to publishing is still overall a good thing, in my opinion, but it means we have to invent new ways to indicate quality.

Since there is no longer any prepublication barrier, we need to add postpublication evaluation. For open-access journals this may mean creating a list of journals that have been evaluated and meet minimal criteria for quality and the legitimacy of their peer-review.

Of course, this will just be one more system to manipulate and game. Scientific quality in an open-access world requires eternal vigilance.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.