Science reporter John Bohannon submitted versions of the same flawed paper by made up scientists to 304 journals around the world between January and August. He found that "more than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws".
"Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper's shortcomings immediately," Science reports. "Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless."
The journals were chosen from a list of credible open-access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals and a controversial list of 'predatory publishers' compiled by Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian from the University of Colorado Denver, United States.
The false paper itself detailed a molecule that had apparently been isolated from lichen and found to inhibit the growth of a certain cancer. The authors and their affiliations were invented and made to sound as if they came from African institutions.
"Of the 255 papers that underwent the entire editing process to acceptance or rejection, about 60 per cent of the final decisions occurred with no sign of peer review," says Science. For papers that were accepted, it adds, "this likely means that the paper was rubber-stamped without being read by anyone".
Even when there were peer-reviews, they focused exclusively on the paper's layout, formatting and language. Only 36 of the 304 submissions recognised any of the paper's scientific problems — and 16 of those "were accepted by the editors despite the damning reviews".
About a third of the journals targeted in the sting are based in India, the world's largest base of open-access publishers. Sixty-four of the Indian titles accepted the flawed paper and only 15 rejected it, making the country the worst performer in the exposé, followed by the United States.
Although journals have editors and bank accounts in the developing world, the company that ultimately reaps the profits may be based in the United States or Europe, Science says.
Hindawi, an open access publisher in Cairo, Egypt, with a 1,000-strong editorial staff handling more than 25,000 articles per year from 559 journals, passed the test, though. Two of its journals rejected the paper.
SciDev.Net reported earlier this year on the suspect practices of some journals which are out for profit, rather than to carry peer-reviewed science, and which target researchers in the developing world.
"Benefits — financial and professional — obtained through such publications should be withdrawn," one expert told SciDev.Net. "The big fish in particular need to be tried in a court of law."
Link to full article in Science