My colleague Nigel Rogers sent me a link to an article in Science magazine which is making waves: Who’s Afraid of Peer Review by John Bohannon. This is entertaining in a guilty-pleasure sort of way, and quite horrifying at the same time. Bohannon wrote a phony paper, designed to be bad but claiming some cancer-curing breakthrough using lichens. He sent it, under invented names intended to sound generically African (but end up reminiscent of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in “Feast of the Mau Mau”), to lots of open access journals and found some rejected it while others were happy to wave it through in exchange for money. Some claimed to charge nothing but later mysterious administrative fees cropped up.
I feel it plays a little too fast and loose with the facts, but given I have been banging on about the lack of statistical review in journals here, there and everywhere, I thought I should mention it on this blog. The aspect I feel particularly uneasy about is how comfortable Bohannon seems at associating middle-income countries with dirty dealing. The bank account is in China? Say no more, they must be crooks. On the other hand, it’s informative to see how they designed the spoof paper. A claim of a dose-response was made in the text and contradicted in a graph. The study design would have swamped the fictional lichen juice with alcohol, which killed the cancer cells and everything else in range, while the control group got neither. Clearly nonsense, but it would be interesting to know how many highly regarded journals would have picked it up… I’m sure there are scams out there, and no doubt some websites contain falsehoods, but I knew that before reading this. The valuable information would be just how much variation there is in scrutiny, but that was contaminated by the pantomime presentation of the phony paper, in just the same way the alcohol and the lichen juice were mixed up. As one of the stung editors wrote from an office about two miles east from mine, “An element of trust must necessarily exist in research, including that carried out in disadvantaged countries. Your activities here detract from that trust.”
Or is the Science article itself the real sting, to catch closet science supremacists?