Summer term and open-access journals :)

It’s the start of summer term! Summer terms are weird—they very so wildly between courses that there is always someone to be found stressing about their imminent exams. Maths, for example in second year has exams in two weeks, no new courses and then a group project—I have exams in five weeks, two new courses and after that am completely free, and Chemists (poor, poor over-worked beings) have three new courses a—reduced—eight hours a week of labs and exams scattered here there and everywhere. Oh well. It’s always nice knowing that someone is working harder than you!

For the rest of the blog I thought I would write a little bit about open-access Science Journals. There has been a lot of debate in the last few years about the best way to publish research papers and if they should they be accessible for everyone to read. High-profile science journals have been criticised for prising their sales above the quality of the research selected, so much so that Randy Schekman, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine has gone as far as to tell his lab to boycott the most prestigious journals. (

This is easier for him to do now, of course. The papers that won him the Nobel Prize were published in one of these journals and he already has a well-established career. For younger scientists, publication in journals such as Nature, Cell and Science promise to bring more recognition, citation and professional rewards. In the article I have linked above, Randy Schekman compares this to the distortion that can come from big bonuses in banks.

The problem is that these journals limit the amount of papers they select, and tend to pick the ‘sexier’ articles that are more eye-catching and make better reading then equally good but more boring research such as confirmation of an earlier hypothesis and important but negative results. Schekman also accuses the journals of putting pressure on scientists leading to grants pouring into ‘fashionable’ areas of science and even encouraging misleading or fraudulent articles. Additionally, with journal prices rising and university budgets being limited, scientists themselves may only have limited access to their peer’s research, meaning that a lot of valuable research goes unnoticed.

The alternative to this is open-access journals that have no limit on the number of papers that are accepted and can publish them online for free without fear of how popular they are going to be. Governments around the world are starting to research the viability of this alternative. The US has put money aside to research how to make government funded research available after a year, and the EU is following suit.

Almost 200 universities worldwide are so far taking part in ‘green’ open access policies where they self-publish their peer-reviewed articles online as well as in a journal. This would seem financially unviable- why would people still subscribe to the journals after all, but some journals have been doing this for a long time and find that universities that can afford it still pay subscriptions.

The UK meanwhile, is controversially trying to move over to a ‘gold’ open access scheme, where the scientists pay the journals to have their research published and this replaces the subscription fees. (Although this is still being argued about.) This has its own set of problems, as some scientists cannot afford to publish, and this model of payment is still relatively new and untested.

Leaving aside this wrangling for a moment and assuming that a universally viable way to publish open-access research can be found, what about the quality of these publications? The large journals have their problems and a few cases of fraudulent papers that slip through the net, but largely manage to only publish outstanding research. Can peer-review be as successful in open-access journals?

This year John Bohannon tested this out by sending multiple similar bogus scientifically to 255 different open-access journals. The details of his experiment can be found here or you can believe me that the experiments in the paper he submitted were really pretty appallingly unscientific.

157 journals accepted the paper, some without any sign that the content had been reviewed at all, and some ridiculously writing back and asking for superficial changes such as a longer abstract. 98 journals rejected it, again some without any signs of peer review, which is promising in this case as it implies that the first person who read the paper easily spotted the mistakes. Still, that is not a good sign for the current state of open source journals. However, although this highlights pretty severe problems with some open-access journals, it does not damn them all. Some journals, such as PLOS ONE did rigorously check with the fictional authors about their concerns before reviewing it and ultimately rejecting it. When open-access journals work, they work well, but this study shows that some control is needed to make sure they are peer-reviewing articles as they claim.

Aside from making research freely available to scientist’s anywhere, the other main argument for open-access journals is that it is morally correct that taxpayers should be able to read the research they are paying for. But how many of the general public are actually interested in reading scientific papers? They can be very very difficult- full of jargon and are usually aimed specifically at people who are experts in the field. They are clearly not the best way to make the public aware of the results of scientific research— I have friends studying in well-respected universities across the country who say that they have never read more than the abstracts of papers because they are so daunting.

Here, traditional journal’s like Nature’s ‘news and views’ section and other, simpler analysis of scientific papers comes into its own- it allows accessibility to people who struggle to read the original work that is quite simply not aimed at them. It may not be a good reflection of all of good science that is being published, but at least it is a quality reflection of some of it.

The two other main sources I used in this blog are:

They both make interesting reading for more background information.

Oh and my science challenge essay is online if anyone would like to read it (or find out more about Science Challenge).

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