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Transition to immediate open access publishing under Plan S will be smooth, promise backers

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 27 November 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5019

Rapid Response:

Re: Transition to immediate open access publishing under Plan S will be smooth, promise backers: Dual standards?

I don't often write scientific papers. Being retired I am out of date in my specialty and much of what I submit to journals is comment or related to medical history. However, I recently discovered something that made me uneasy.

I submitted a paper to a prestigious journal. It was rejected. I don't get hung up about rejection; one is always convinced by the brilliance and originality of one's own work but an objective, dispassionate review will bring one down to earth. It's happened many times and I suspect to many people. But what made my ears prick up was the suggestion that, were I to submit it to the open-access version of the same journal, it would probably be accepted.

Now I don't have a spare $3000 to follow this course. But I was under the impression that peer review was peer review. If it's not suitable for the journal it's not suitable for any version of that journal, I imagined. But clearly not. Pay and be published, it seems, under different rules.

I re-submitted the paper to a second prestigious journal. The same thing happened (except I got better reviewer feedback - in fact I actually got feedback, which I didn't from the first). But once more I was shamelessly offered the opportunity to submit to the open-access version. It cost less - about $1500 - but I would rather spend that redesigning my website, or buying some extra gizmo for my camera, or... whatever.

Cash for publication. Discriminatory, unscientific and dangerous. The potential for bias if this is going on a lot is stupendous. Not worthy of inclusion in our important journal – but it is if you pay. While an individual may not be able to fund a publication, a research department may, and a pharma company certainly will. The former may require publications in high impact-factor journals to maintain its grants and prestige. A drug company may simply wish to promote positive studies of its own new drug. Of course they will pay up. Yet if a prestigious journal with a high impact factor has dual acceptance standards for its main and open-access versions this disadvantages the individual. Equally it raises serious questions about the peer-review process. Are the reviewers different? Are they given different standards to meet? Which reviewers are right in deciding to accept or reject? How is it good enough for the online edition when it isn’t for the print edition?

I don't need more papers on my CV because I am not applying for any jobs. At 68 the job market is small, though I fancy the House of Lords. But the experience made me wonder whether one can trust work appearing in paid-for journals. I wonder what others think.

Competing interests: No competing interests

26 March 2019
Andrew N Bamji
Retired consultant rheumatologist