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

Jun 22 '09

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]