Are open-access journals just dumping grounds for garbage? New fuel for the fire

Open-access scholarly journals may well be the wave of the future. For now, though, many researchers are reluctant to submit their work to open-access journals because they think of them as dumping grounds for papers that wouldn’t stand a chance of being published in a “real” journal. Indeed, many critics wonder whether the rush to get findings into circulation and/or to fill up empty spaces on one’s c.v. are leading to a short-circuiting of established peer-review practices or even an abandonment of peer review altogether.

Now comes news of a development that seems guaranted to fan these flames.

Do you remember the “Sokal hoax”? In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal wrote and submitted to Social Text, a post-modernist cultural studies journal, a paper that Sokal himself deemed nonsensical but in which he employed terminology in vogue in the journal and made an argument that he suspected the editor would find congenial. He was right. The paper was accepted for publication and on the day it was published Sokal trumpeted the fact that it was all a hoax intended to establish that insofar as cultural studies was concerned, the emperor had been shown to have no clothes.

Well, something like the Sokal hoax has happened again.

Using pseudonyms, Philip Davis and Kent Anderson, claiming to be researchers at the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology (in case you don’t recall what phrenology is, it’s the study of personality through analysis of bumps on the head—and check out the initials of the ostensible center), submitted a paper to The Open Information Science Journal . Note that I didn’t say that Davis and Anderson wrote the article. In fact, the article was written by a computer program, which cobbled together words and phrases that Davis and Anderson provided to form complex, and often bizarre, sentences. The results reported in the paper were phonies, too.

What happened? Davis and Anderson were contacted by the publisher and informed that their paper had withstood its peer review process and was therefore eligible for publication, pending receipt of $800 in fees.

Here is the whole story, which isn’t going to do much to enhance the image of open-access journals.

[Hat tip to Eric Lawrence]

4 Responses to Are open-access journals just dumping grounds for garbage? New fuel for the fire

  1. Paul Gowder June 22, 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Is this about open-access journals, or about pay-to-play journals? The two are not coextensive: a journal could be funded by, e.g, an endowment, and so be open access w/o charging authors and hence having an incentive to publish total horseshit. (I strongly suspect, for example, that the new Harvard Journal of Legal Analysis won’t be charging authors!)

    I vaguely recall someone pulling a similar hoax in a pay-to-play computer science conference… aah, here it is.

  2. Lee Sigelman June 23, 2009 at 10:14 am #


    Point taken. Because the journal in question is both open-access and pay-to-play, it’s impossible to pinpoint the target, though the motivation for the study was apparently to probe the peer review system at an open-access journal.

    Anyway, the pay-to-play point puts me in mind of the following: Back sometime in the 1970s, my wife and I did a little study and submitted it to a psychology journal. We were then informed that the paper was being accepted for publication, and we were given two options: We could pay publication fees, in which case the paper would appear in the very next issue of the journal. Or we could decline to pay fees, in which case the paper would be placed in the regular publication queue and published as soon as an opening appeared. Because neither of us was highly invested in the paper and we didn’t have much money, we opted for the second alternative. As of now, some 35 or so years later, the paper apparently is still in the queue.

  3. JC June 23, 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Regarding the Sokal hoax, it is worth noting that Social Text is not a peer-reviewed journal (or at least was not at the time), which made it easier to bamboozle the editors. That the Open Information Science Journal purports to be peer-reviewed makes this story even more of a scandal, in some ways.

  4. Jim Till June 25, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    Does this hoax raise more questions about open access journals, author-pays models, or this particular publisher? For more on this question, see: “Hoax Article Accepted by ‘Peer-Reviewed’ OA Bentham Journal”, Norman Oder, Library Journal, 6/11/2009,