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Open access weak spot

Daniel Bueno

More than 150 open-access scientific journals have admitted to publishing a fake scientific article, signed by a fictitious author named Ocorrafoo Cobange with ties to a nonexistent institution. The scam was pulled off by John Bohannon, biologist and science journalist, who submitted versions of the article to 304 online journals. The paper, which described the anticancer properties of a substance extracted from lichen, was accepted by 157 periodicals – including some hosted by publishers like Sage and Elsevier – and rejected by 98. Another 49 failed to respond. “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry. . .should have spotted the paper’s shortcomings,”wrote Bohannon in the journal Science. Of the 255 journals that accepted or rejected the paper, 60% gave no indication that the findings had been submitted to peer review. Among the 106 journals that conducted some form of evaluation, 70% accepted the article.

Open-access journals, unlike their paid subscription counterparts, usually obtain their funds solely from the publication fees paid by the researchers whose papers are accepted. One periodical with offices in Brazil – Genetics and Molecular Research – said yes to the article. Francisco Moura Duarte, professor at the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (FMRP-USP) and editor of the journal, denies that he fell into the trap. “One of our associate editors reviewed the same article in a European journal and warned us that it might be a fake,” he says. He argues that the study was accepted on a preliminary basis to see if the author would consent to paying for publication. “If he agreed, we were going to denounce him,” states Duarte, who sent a letter to Science demanding a retraction. “GMR has no history of ever publishing a fake article, unlike Science,” says Duarte, in a reference to phony papers on human cloning that were published in 2004 and 2005. Paul Peters, president of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, said that Bohannon missed a chance to do an in-depth study that used traditional journals as a control group and that he erred in not choosing the publications at random: 64% of those who accepted the article were from India. A number of open-access publications did not fall for the scam. The journal Plos One, for example, rejected the paper.

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