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Open access! Peer review! Watch the fur fly.

There has been a lot of grumbling lately about the high cost of journal subscriptions. One of the major complaints is that most research is publicly funded and should, therefore, be available to the public. The second reason journal fees appear to be unacceptably high is because the authors of apaper actual pay to have their paper published (technically, journal articles are classed as "advertisements" rather than articles). In some cases this publication fee runs into the thousands of dollars. Journals used to charge more, for example, if you had colour figures in your paper to offset costs. It was also noted that much of the reviewing and editing was done by the scientific community at large, and no remuneration was given for this work. This process is called peer review, where a panel of your scientific peers examines the validity of your experimental techniques and findings.

The solution that emerged from this controversy was the birth of open access journals. All articles in these journals would be accessible to everybody at no cost. Most of the initial journals kept a peer review system in place, but it appears that the rigour of these reviews may be marginal or completely absent in some journals. To investigate this, John Bohannon sent a fake, seriously flawed scientific article and sent it more than 300 open access journals. Of these, about half accepted the paper, and many requested exorbitant fees for publication. It is clear from these results that many of these journals did not have much, if any, peer review process, but rather were a source of income generation for the publishers. Bohannon's study was published in the journal Science, which is one of the big, subscriber-only, scientific journals. You can, and should, read it here. How are you able to read this article, which would normally be sequestered behind a paywall? Well, in this case Science felt they should make the journal available to everyone. This is, in effect, the problem with the entire article.

Any science student should immediately see the flaw in this article. The purpose was to demonstrate that open-access journals exhibited little rigour when selecting articles. In his study, however, Bohannon only sent the article to open-access journals. The same article was NOT sent to ANY subscriber only journals, such as Science which published the article. Curt Rice wrote a nice critique of this in the Guardian (read it here). My favourite critique, however, was written by Michael Eisen on his blog (read it here). In it, he fictitiously pretends to have written the "bacteria can live on arsenic in space" article that made the rounds a couple of years ago. This was an incredibly flawed research article from researchers associated with NASA that claimed bacteria could use arsenic instead of phosphorus and survive. The article was quickly and embarrassingly debunked. Which journal published this terrible article? I think you can guess, it appeared in the pages of Science. For some reason, this one IS behind the paywall.