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The Science hoax: poor journalology reflects poor training in peer review

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7465 (Published 13 December 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7465
  1. Rajeev Kumar, additional professor, department of urology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, 110029, India
  1. rajeev02{at}gmail.com

Rather than corruption, it is lack of training that leads to unpaid journal editors and reviewers publishing bad science, argues Rajeev Kumar, in response to the finding by the journal Science that many open access journals were keen to publish a hoax paper

Nothing gets an Indian more agitated than criticism in the foreign press. This might be true of other nationalities too, but I wouldn’t know because I have always been Indian. The immediate reaction is to assume discrimination, of being unfairly singled out. The recent publication in the journal Science of a sting operation on open access journals is a case in point.1 2 For the article, the journalist John Bohannon sent a spoof medical paper full of flaws to 304 open access journals.

In all, 157 journals sent acceptance letters, representing a wide range of publishers in many different countries. But the author chose to name the Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals as the case study in his article. This journal is published by Medknow, one of the largest open access publishers based in India, and this set off rounds of discussion and explanation. Most of us who edit journals published by Medknow were relieved that we had not been similarly targeted. But could it have happened to us? Would the article have passed scrutiny in our journal? What makes us any different from the journals that accepted it?

This event has been an eye opener and given us an opportunity for introspection and to look again at our processes. It has also given us further impetus to strive to improve the quality of research, peer review, editing, and publishing at least within India if not the whole region. This matter clearly is not limited to the open access or “author pays to publish” model (the Science investigation included no control group of journals with traditional business models). Open access does not always mean “pay to publish.” A large number of open access journals, including ours, cover their costs through subscriptions, advertisements, and financial support from the professional society that they represent and do not make any profit. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Curt Rice, professor at the University of Tromsø, Norway, and a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, highlighted the crux of the problem.3 If you leave out corruption, lack of good peer review is the most important reason why bad science gets through.

Good peer review requires knowledge of the subject, the science behind research, and commitment of time. Medical students are rarely taught how to design, conduct, analyse, and report scientific studies but are expected to write a research thesis for their masters degree, another one or two for their doctorate, and then multiple papers every year for academic progress. Those who never learnt the art themselves go on to “teach” their students, perpetuating the problem. Some progress and become reviewers for journals while others go on to become editors. The conscientious ones try to learn on the job; those less inclined are happy to turn in reviews for a randomised controlled trial such as, “Good paper: should be published.” Most simply have never had the opportunity to learn and cannot identify a problem when they see it. They are not corrupt.

The past few years have seen concerted efforts to resolve this problem. Several journals and professional societies are partnering academic institutions to conduct training programmes and workshops on research, writing, reviewing, and publishing. Almost all these are free of fees for delegates, are held in college premises, and are tailored for attendees with different levels of experience. The Indian Association of Medical Journal Editors (IAMJE; www.iamje.org) is a professional society of editors of medical journals that aims to provide education and other resources to help editors resolve problems in medical publishing. The association met recently and conducted workshops on ethics, authorship, and reviewing in collaboration with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE; http://publicationethics.org) and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME; www.wame.org) at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, where publication ethics and scientific misconduct generated more discussion than any other topic.

Because the vast majority of medical journals in India are run by honorary (unpaid) editorial boards that do not benefit monetarily from this work, it is likely that corruption is less of a problem than lack of expertise. It is far easier to tackle the latter than the former.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7465

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare that I am editor-elect of the Indian Journal of Urology that is published by Medknow.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

References

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