Open Access Science and the Rise of Predatory Publishing

Following our summer hiatus from the blog Roger and I thought we would kick off this academic year with a piece on the changing nature of peer review and science publishing.

Like most professors we are finding our mailboxes more and more full of academic spam. If it is not companies trying to sell me transgenic rats, monogrammed lab coats in stylish colours or bioassay systems, its now invitations to present papers at conferences in exotic locations or publish with new journals I have never heard of (and usually well outside of my discipline). It’s enough to make me long for the days when I simply won the Nigerian state lottery a couple of times a week.

New technologies have arisen that now allow academics to publish more directly than ever before. Traditionally scientific work has been presented to the world for consideration of its merits and for challenge. The principle being that ideas and claims are independently examined, become refined, and bad ones rejected. This is a central part of the skeptical nature of scientific inquiry and remains a firm part of academic training, with PhD. candidates being required to defend their theses in robust discussion with their peers.

The peer review process for scientific papers prior to publication is an embodiment of this principle. The value is that the process is self-critical, and the conventional wisdom is consistently challenged. Modern science is pragmatic in that it presents ideas for peer review and openly invites opportunity for anyone to challenge the dominant theory if they can come up with alternative results or better explanations supported by evidence. Nevertheless, we know this culture is not value free as we have discussed previously, and there are costs associated with the dissemination of scientific information that are traditionally passed on to the end-user. Hence, the large publishers tend to be driven more by circulation and sales goals rather than more altruistic motivations, especially with books. For example, you can have an innovative well written book but still get it rejected by major publishers as it goes against the flow and is considered unlikely to sell in any volume. Despite their expertise and peer-review systems publisher’s often still get this spectacularly wrong (J.K. Rowling being a case in point in the world of fiction)! If we look at the number of retractions in scientific journals too, we also see some evidence of flaws in this traditional system.

So, with the advent of desktop publishing and mass circulation using the web, alternative models for dissemination have now arisen in all forms of academic publishing. Open access (OA) is one such innovation, and supports unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. A declaration on the principles behind OA were made at a 2003 Berllin Conference.  Although primarily intended for scholarly journal articles,it now also encompasses a growing number of theses, and book chapters too.This is hardly new though, and John Brockman noted there was a culture, of scientists communicating directly with the public about their work in media back in 1995 (Brockman, 1995). Nevertheless, the ideas behind OA publication reflect a desire to provide faster and more open access to scientific work.

Basically OA comes in two flavours, gratis open access, which is completely open and free online access, and libre open access, which is free online access plus some additional usage rights. These additional usage rights are often granted through the use of various licensing agreements such as Creative Commons. Authors have two options with OA publication. They can either  self-archive their papers in an open access repository, also known as “green” OA, or publish in an established OA journal, known as “gold” OA. Central repositories such as PubMed Central are examples of green OA, whilst gold OA usually use a fee-for-service model that tends to range from $1000 to $3000 per paper (depending on the open journal). This is justified on the basis of the editorial support and peer-review services involved in the publishing process.

Struggling academics looking to raise the profile of their work are often encouraged to use OA services to increase their citation rates (I have been advised of his on several occasions in my career), and some granting agencies require OA publication in any proposals submitted. So, overall there is growing pressure for academics to use these new publishing models, and gold OA seems to offer a robust peer-review process on a par with established traditional journals.

However, what is becoming more concerning is that the fee-for-service model has become a boom industry and entrepreneurs have recognized good money can be made here. This has led to the rise of the predatory publishing tactics which we are now seeing. The term was conceived by University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher Jeffrey Beall upon noticing the large number of emails inviting him to submit articles or join the editorial board of previously unknown journals. Here is a classic example from my mailbox last week:

Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics

Dear Dr. Garrett,

Scholoxy Publication‘s journals are International Journal of Education and Research welcomes and acknowledges high quality theoretical and empirical original research papers, case studies, review papers, literature reviews, and technical note from researchers, academicians, professional, practitioners and students from all over the world.

We coordinately invite you to submit your papers to Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics an Open Access (Gold OA), peer reviewed, international online publishing journal which aims to publish premier papers on all the related areas of advanced research carried in its field.

The Journal has strong Editorial Board with eminent persons in the field and carries stringent peer review process.

It all sounds very genuine and scholarly, apart from the fact I don’t know anyone in the pharmacology department who has heard of them (in a positive way), and I am not even a pharmacology or alternative medicine professor! This unsolicited invite is actually from a pay-per-publication service whose peer-review process is completely unverified, and I am certainly a little suspicious as to how “stringent” the peer review process is when each publication is accompanied by a cheque.

More subtly these new publishers are also engaging academics to join their editorial boards, or become reviewers on their prestigious journals. Another tactic reflecting these practices is the use of what seem like personal invitations to present at conferences (in reality they are mail-merged bulk mailings to spam lists). To highlight these issues, I see the Canadian Association of Witch Doctors recently submitted and got a spoof paper approved at one such peer-reviewed  OMICS conference. Again, for academics beginning their careers (or even established academics) these may seem like great opportunities to develop their profiles or get their work to a broader audience.

So how can we discern the predatory publishers from genuine scholarly OA providers? Luckily, there are some resources that can help.Jeffrey Beal provides an extensive list of dubious OA outfits on Scholarly Open Access. Worth a look as it’s amazing how many there are!

There are also several sites that provide journal rankings, so academics can check out the status of their chosen journal. E.g., in my discipline (nursing) there are the following examples:

Many disciplines also have lists of established journals in their field, such as INANE’s list of nursing journals. However, even these lists are not foolproof in terms of establishing the academic credibility of journals. For example  Nursing Science Quarterly (incredibly still published by Sage – note my earlier comments on publishers motives) makes several of these lists and although not a predatory publication, is hardly a paragon of scientific excellence, self-citation or rigerous peer-review practices. I think Roger would see this one fit his “isn’t that like asking your mum to review your papers?” category.

Overall, the rise of predatory publishing and how it will impact the broader scientific community and influence the public understanding of science is something of a concern. It seems the best advice for scientists everywhere is buyer beware. There is nothing wrong with traditional journals, and we should remember there are a good many reputable OA journals. However, the usual practice is you send them a paper: not you receive an invite from them. Sometimes good journal editors do solicit work from established researchers and theorists in the field. But, if an offer comes your way to join an editorial board, present at a conference or publish in a venerable new journal and it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Onwards and upwards



Beall J. (2012) ON Predatory Publishers 

Brockman, J. (1995). The third culture. New York: Simon & Schuster


Fundamental Flaws: The aftermath of the Ham vs. Nye debate

Hello all,

As many people may have noticed by now the Bill Nye (the science guy) vs. Ken Ham (creationist) debate that was webcast last week has gone somewhat viral (note, you have to fast forward through the 13 mins of pre-feed to get to the debate – can’t their web guys edit?), and many pundits have pitched in with blogs, commentary etc. Click here to see one such example of the responses.

However, virtually all of them have focused on the substantive content of the arguments rather than the nature of the argument itself. Clearly, many of the arguments made by Ham were untenable, such as refuting the huge body of scientific work that demonstrates the likely age of the earth, engineering science that notes the improbability of building a wooden ship the size of the ark that was actually seaworthy, and most significantly life-science that notes for Ham’s arguments to work in the 4000 years required we would need 11 new species being created a day to explain the diversity of life we now see on Earth.

There were many logical fallacies presented too, the ones made by Ham I noted were:

  • Appeal to Authority
  • Ad-hoc Reasoning
  • Appeal to Conviction
  • Circular Reasoning
  • Exception (special pleading)
  • Non-sequitur
  • False Dichotomy
  • Straw Man
  • Tautology

…for a good explanation of all these see our Good Science Guide in the resources section.

I also suspect many Christians were embarrassed by Ham’s attempts to present ill-conceived arguments as “science” to support Christian creationist beliefs. In my experience the majority of religious leaders and believers today do not support a literal analysis of scripture. They hold beliefs that are informed by these ancient texts but acknowledge they were written by humans well before the discovery of much of everyday established knowledge (e.g. electricity) and are therefore products of their time, and contain many errors. Attempting to present them as “the word of god” and factually accurate (as Ham did in several slides) is rather a minority and fundamentalist view. Sadly this represents the sort of thinking that is adopted by groups such as the Taliban, The National Liberation Front of Tripura, the Klu Klux Clan, and many other extremist groups.

Despite their non-sequitur, the main problem with these sort of arguments is really that you cannot refute metaphysical arguments with scientific rationale. As Karl Popper, and Bertrand Russell and many other have considered you can’t prove the unprovable and presenting unfalsifiable claims (such as a miracles occurred, or that god exists and is the creator of the universe) as scientific hypotheses is a fruitless pursuit. There can never be sufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate god does not exist (it can always be argued god exists outside our current abilities to perceive or detect him/her) and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All we can do is look at the arguments and take a position. The believer will adopt faith, whilst the atheist or agnostic generally adopts scientific rationale. This could not have been clearer when a viewer asked “What would make you change your mind?” Nye responded that evidence would make him a believer, whilst Ham responded that nothing would as he had unconditional faith.

So, we should consider why Ham and his followers would wish to try and promote a scientific rationale to support their position. Basically, this is an attempt to manipulate educational policy in the USA to incorporate a very specific religious ideology instead of a broad and secular curriculum, and to target the science curriculum. This I believe the main reason why Nye accepted the challenge to appear in this debate at all. Creationism is not science in any shape or form, so suggesting it should be taught in the science curriculum is very problematic, let alone supplant scientific theories such as evolution. Teaching it as a part of religious studies might make sense, but not as a viable alternative theory in the science curriculum.

Ham’s position to get creationism into the science curriculum is as good an example of new sophistry as you are likely to find, and actually seems the ultimate example of “bait and switch,” a practice that Ham actually accused the scientific community of making in his presentation. Bait and switch is a selling method in which a customer is attracted by the advertisement of a low-priced product but then is encouraged to buy a more expensive one (as the original is now unavailable). In this case Ham presents the bait by arguing that science actually supports the creationists view of the old testament account of the existence of the world, but then as the argument proceeds to switch science out for completely unscientific dogma based on scripture: the word of god, the bible explains our existence, no carnivorous animals existed before original sin, languages developed after the Tower of Babel etc. etc.

This sort of expansion of the term “science” to incorporate all forms of inquiry and explanation, and a poor public understanding of what science is (conflating science, pseudoscience and non-science) is an increasing trend, and one of the main reasons Roger and I originally set up this blog; in order to counter such anti-science agendas.

The creationists view that you can somehow separate “observational/experimental science” from “historical science” makes absolutely no sense at all, and is an invention purely designed to support the creationist position. It represents a good example of the logical fallacy of special pleading. Science deals with the present, past and future, and directly observable and unobservable entities in order to test theories, explain and predict events. If we accept Ham’s position on this, then anything that occurred before humans existed, or anything we can’t directly observe or test by experiment today cannot be explained by scientific inquiry. However, as most scientific theories assume some form of continuity of phenomena or universality (at least in our universe) science does not generally differentiate between what can be demonstrated now and what was true 6000 years ago (apart from in terms of age of the phenomenon or environmental conditions a the time). If we follow Ham’s rationale then any conclusions drawn from what Ham calls “historical science” become meaningless. This conveniently cuts off much of current scientific knowledge. including most astrophysics, paleontology, genetics, and  evolutionary biology. The solution Ham presents is to defer to scripture, but the argument as to why scripture is more accurate that the “flawed” historical science is not made. I.e. exactly why is a nearly 2000 year old text more believeable than “historical” science? Does it not suffer from exactly the same issues with verifiability as “historical” science?

Lastly I found Ham’s characterization of science as a western Christian tradition rather offensive and patronizing. He completely ignores the great Asian, Arabic and Indian historical traditions in the development of modern science. In India, Brahmagupta (ca. 598-668) a mathematician and astronomer developed the Hindu-Arabic numerical system pioneering the use of zero as a number circa 628. This is now used as the scientific standard throughout the world. The great Islamic thinker Alhazan, Ibn al-Haytham was a prime exponent of scientific thinking, making great contributions in the development of the scientific method and in the fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics and particularly optics.

In all its rather a depressing situation that the very simplistic creationist curriculum should be taught as science at all in US public schools, but sadly it still seems very widespread there. I do wish Bill Nye had tackled the fundamental philosophical problems with Ham’s presentation, but believe he probably focused on the substantive content more as he thought this would probably make more impact. On the bright side I thought Bill Nye gave an excellent, intelligent, passionate and very respectful response. He clearly won the debate in those terms, and is an inspiration to us all as a role model for science education. Cool bow-tie too!

Onwards and upwards!






Small victories for health science with Advertising Standards Canada (ASC)

Hi all,

Thought I would give a quick update on my  experiences using FishBarrel in Canada to target dubious claims and practices, where there is no scientific evidence to support them. I am pleased to report a couple of positive results with Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) for two cases I found recently of CAM practitioners making dubious claims for their practices.

A few weeks back, I almost choked on my toast at breakfast when I opened a local free-newspaper (The Delta Optimist) to find a full page of advertisements with various local CAM practitioners advertising presented as “Ask the Experts” – strangely, with no medical or nursing content. Apart from the nonsense being claimed by some, or blindingly obvious advice (the local naturopath telling people that if they eat healthily they might feel better) what also irked me was that the page was presented as a full-spread editorial exploring healthy living, not a page of paid advertising. I know, I know, I really should know better, and I don’t know why I even bother reading them either – one, a few weeks back had the shocking front-page headline “Tenants Miss Bus!” with a story of a scheduled bus that did not arrive to pick up its passengers; hardly the BBC or Al Jazeera.

Anyhow, I decided to give FishBarrel a test run and complain to the ASC and the Competition Bureau Canada (CBC) to see if I had any luck, and also with another website I had come across making unsubstantiated health claims. It only took a few minutes to make the complaint in the time it took me to finish my coffee.

Firstly, I complained about a BC based self-described dream-healer (who also appeared on TV in 2007 in on the Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos) about his faith/energy/remote healing website. He claimed his therapies were “the most effective way that we can all play an active role in our own healing.” Secondly, I complained about a local craniosacral therapist from the Ladner Birch Tree Wellness Clinic, who claimed that autism, ADD and ADHD, could be relieved with craniosacral therapy. Lastly, I complained to the Optimist had not identified the “Ask the Experts” section as advertising, but implied it was editorial content.

The CBC were not particularly helpful, and somewhat surprisingly, it seems the advertisements did not represent unfair competition (although making false claims for commercial competitive purposes is identified in their standards). However, the ASC response found against the faith-healer in respect to Clause 1 (Accuracy and Clarity) and Clause 8 (Professional and Scientific Claims) of the Code (See: and use “Dreamhealer” as the search term in 2013 Q4 to see the ruling)  and initially against the craniosacral therapist in the provisions of Clause 1 (Accuracy and Clarity), and Clause 8 (Professional and Scientific Claims) of the Code – this is currently being appealed by the advertiser so I will update this page on the final ruling). Lastly, it found against the Optimist in  Clause 2 for (Disguised Advertising Techniques).

All of these folks have been written to and required to comply with the code in future and the cases recorded and published on the ASC website. Small beer I know, and overall probably not world-changing, but the more bad-publicity businesses get for employing inaccurate/false claims or unscrupulous advertising techniques the more likely the public are going to question their practices, standards, and motives. All in all, it gives me some hope and was, I must admit, rather satisfying!

I shall be using FishBarrel for more of this in the future, and the more people who complain about this sort of thing the better. I have also just complained to our professional regulatory body (the CRNBC) about a practitioner using their RN status to advertise and support their private commercial CAM practices, so we shall see how that goes. With the Web and tools like FishBarrel it is now quite easy to do this sort of thing, so remember, next time you see unfair, unreasonable or blatantly fraudulent advertising practice you can do the same.

Onwards and upwards,

Cheers Bernie

 Update: March 12th 2014

The appeal process has now completed for the Ladner Cranio-Sacral therapist and the ASC upheld the original complaint finding

“In the opinion of the Appeal Panel, the overall impression conveyed by the advertisement was that craniosacraltherapy is widely recognized as an effective method of treating serious conditions listed in the advertisement. The case studies submitted by the advertiser gave only anecdotal evidence that a few patients believed their symptoms were relieved as a result of the treatment. This, in the Appeal Panel’s unanimous view, is in contrast to the principal claim conveyed by the advertisement.

Because the impression conveyed by the advertisement was not supported by the evidence submitted, the Appeal Panel, therefore, confirmed the original decision of Council that the advertisement contravened Clauses 1(e) and 8 of the Code. “