Perennial Aard favourites N-A. Mörner and B.G. Lind have published another note in a thematically unrelated journal. It’s much like the one they snuck past peer review into Geografiska Annaler in 2009 and which Alun Salt and I challenged in 2011. The new paper is as usual completely out of touch with real archaeology, misdating Ales stenar by over 1000 years and comparing it to Stonehenge using the megalithic yard. No mention is made of the fact that this unit of measurement was dreamed up by professor of engineering cum crank archaeoastronomer Alexander Thom and has never had any standing in academic archaeology. The megalithic yard does not exist.
At first I thought, damn, they’ve managed to game the system again. But then I looked into the thing some more and came to the conclusion that this time, Mörner & Lind have been scammed, poor bastards.
The journal they’ve published in is named the International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It’s an on-line Open Access quarterly, and though it has an ISSN number for a paper version as well, this is not held by any Swedish library. This may not be cause for suspicion, because the journal is new: its first four issues appeared last year. The Head Editor is professor of astronomy at a young English university that is quite highly ranked within the UK.
So far, it may look like Mörner & Lind have simply published in a low-impact but legit academic venue. But let’s have a look at the publishers of IJAA, Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). This outfit publishes from Irvine, CA, but its web site is registered in Wuhan, China, where its president Huaibei “Barry” Zhou is based. He is apparently a physicist. According to a 2010 statement by Zhou to Nature News, he co-founded SCIRP in 2006 or 2007. In the five or six years since, the firm has launched over 150 on-line Open Access journals. Uh-oh.
Suspicions about SCIRP began to gather in December 2009, when Improbable Research, the body behind the IgNobel Prize, said the publisher might offer “the world’s strangest collection of academic journals”. Improbable Research pointed out that at the time, SCIRP’s journals were repurposing and republishing decade-old papers from bona-fide journals, sometimes repeating the same old paper in several of its journals, and offering scholars in unrelated fields places on editorial boards.
This was taken up by Nature News in January 2010, when they contacted Zhou and received the explanation that the old papers had appeared on the web site by mistake after having been used to mock up journals for design purposes. “They just set up the website to make it look nice”, said Zhou. While he had otherwise represented himself as president of SCIRP, Zhou now told Nature News that he helped to run the journals in a volunteer capacity. The piece reports that SCIRP had listed several scholars on editorial boards without asking them first, in some cases recruiting the names of people in completely irrelevant fields. In other cases, scholars had agreed to join because a SCIRP journal’s name was similar to that of a respected publication in their field. Recruitment efforts by e-mail had apparently been intensive and scattershot.
Now, what is this really about? Why is SCIRP cranking out all of these fly-by-night fringe journals that anybody can read for free? The feeling across the web is that it’s most likely a scam utilising a new source of income: the “author pays” model built into bona fide Open Access publishing. A kinder way to put it would be that SCIRP is a pseudo-academic vanity press.
Instead of charging a subscription fee, many Open Access journals charge authors a publication fee once their manuscripts have gone through peer review and been accepted. This gets research out of the stranglehold of the big publishing houses (Elsevier et al.), making it available to tax payers and scholars in poor countries. Instead of putting huge money into their libraries to buy expensive journal subscriptions, universities can distribute smaller amounts among their faculty to pay Open Access publication fees.
But Mörner & Lind’s new paper has clearly not been vetted by any competent scholar. This suggests that anybody can publish anything in SCIRP’s International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics as long as they pay the fee. Its Head Editor tells me by e-mail that he is “concerned about the refereeing process and should investigate”.
And as for the other 150 SCIRP journals? Well, what can you tell me, Dear Reader?
(SCIRP has a few other lines of business too. One is apparently scam conferences. Beware of the International Conference on Internet Technology and Applications.)
Update 16 April: Michael D. Smith, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Kent, stands by his journal. He wrote me today:
I have checked – the article was indeed refereed properly.
I also note that your blog contains many many errors and also draws on selected information taken out of context.
I believe few academics would agree with him regarding the quality of the peer review in this case — be they astronomers, archaeologists or archaeoastronomers.