So the backstory of the truly horrific murders at the University of Alabama at Huntsville has taken an open-access turn: the perpetrator (not being a journalist, I don’t think I need to say “alleged”) got a rather dubious-looking article published in an open-access journal.
Further investigation into the journal only heightens concern; while we’re not quite talking about Bentham or SJI here, we’re definitely in that ballpark. I won’t rehash details, because Richard Poynder has it covered with admirably succinct directness. I believe what he’s recounted, and I agree with his analysis in its entirety.
Let’s talk for a moment about the credibility of open-access journal publishing in general, and OASPA in particular.
As Peter Suber is fond of pointing out, open-access and toll-access journals are more similar than they are different. Both need to cover costs some way or other. Both apply peer review or don’t, in roughly equal proportions. A subset of both charges author fees (yet somehow the “vanity publishing” brush only seems to tar OA, go figure). Both struggle to establish themselves when new. Both rely on free authoring, reviewing, editorial, and sometimes production labor. Et cetera.
It should seem natural, then, that both open-access and toll-access journals contain bad seeds, suffer scandal. For every Bentham, there’s an Australasian Journal; for every SJI, there’s an El Naschie. (Well, actually, I would guess there are quite a few more Australasians than Benthams lurking out there, because the toll-access slice of the journal pie is still so much larger, but you take my point.)
It seems to me there’s one important asymmetry in a journal scandal or failure, however: its transparency. A toll-access journal belonging to a large publisher can disappear practically without a trace, especially if most hints of its existence are limited to membership in yet another gigantic Big Deal bundle. Its editors quietly sidle away; its web page quietly vanishes into pixeldust. Nobody is particularly tarnished by the failure (not that anyone necessarily should be, of course).
It’s not quite that simple for an open-access journal. Most of the ones I know of that have folded never had a coherent shutdown plan. The website can’t (or at least shouldn’t) just vanish unless the actual content has been handed off, so it just sits there on the open web and moulders, its failure obvious to anyone who borrows a bit of Google’s or the Internet Archive’s all-seeing eyes.
In my more cynical moments, I wonder whether the DOAJ’s journal-archiving plan was developed partly in response to this problem, in hopes of being able to shut down dead OA journals halfway gracefully. If it was, good on ‘em.
Toll-access journals also have an easier time concealing scandal, not least because they are not subject to the gaze of Google’s pitiless eye. Sure, once in a while they get found out and some corporate type has a few sleepless nights, but how much dross slips through the system because the system is too big and too closed to monitor after the fact? You could ask China, I suppose.
(If your knee-jerk answer to the previous paragraph is “peer review!” please take your dunce cap and go sit in the corner. Peer review is a leaky heuristic at best. It fails, often, and that’s when it’s done in good faith to begin with! We should in fact expect it to fail?and, given the stakes, to be gamed. Necessary? Maybe. Sufficient? Not by a long shot.)
It’s not so simple for open-access journals, for reasons I hope are obvious from what I just said about toll-access ones. It doesn’t help that (please pardon my bluntness) a fair few OA journals, particularly of the shoestring-budget variety, haven’t really thought through such ugly scenarios as plagiarism, fraud, innocent but nonetheless major errors, and suchlike phenomena requiring article retractions. (Neither have institutional repositories. They should. I have, though I’m still stuck on how best to find out that something in the IR I run needs retraction.)
Moreover, because open-access journals are new and academia is conservative, OA-journal scandals are more likely to run into scrutiny and opprobrium. Unlike the neverending stream of FUD coming from the for-profit toll-access journal industry and its quislings, this isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s a good one! We want bad actors to be discovered and removed from the system! It’s only bad insofar as it unfairly colors academia’s perception of open-access journals generally?which it unfortunately does. (I dimly sense a pattern emerging in public academic discourse of PLoS/BMC/Hindawi as “okay OA” versus “all that other vanity-publishing dreck.” It’s not a fair or an accurate characterization, but I keep finding traces of it.)
Now we come to OASPA. When OASPA formed, I speculated about whether it would take on basic journal quality-control duties. I hoped it would, because the more OA-journal scandals can be prevented and punished, the better for OA journals’ credibility. Indeed, I wondered whether transparency-led freedom from scandal could turn out to be good for open access:
I think an OASPA certification program represents a tremendous opportunity for the OA community. Gold OA is still small. It?s much easier to put meaningful quality regulation in place over a small, emerging, prestige-hungry industry. If gold OA manages to do that, then it suddenly has another competitive advantage over toll-access, which hasn?t done so and (given its extent and decentralization) very likely can?t.
Later, OASPA said outright that making decisions about quality was indeed within its scope: “OASPA aims to become the stamp of quality for open access publishing.” I rejoiced.
I am not rejoicing now.
Here’s the thing, OASPA: being a stamp of quality means stamping out bad practices where and when you find them. Yes, even when doing so is awkward and uncomfortable. In the case of Dove Medical Press and the International Journal of General Medicine, you have conspicuously failed to do that. Your comment to Richard Poynder regarding Dr. Bishop conspicuously misses the point: nobody is asking you to opine about Dr. Bishop or her record; they’re asking you to investigate the practices of Dove Medical Press because of what looks on its face like an extremely dubious (and now, conspicuously dubious) publishing decision.
You should have jumped on that, tragic circumstances be damned. Because you didn’t, your “stamp of quality” has been tarnished. It’s even worse that Dove is an OASPA member; I certainly hope you’re not cutting sweetheart deals for membership fees, but I’m afraid that’s how it looks from my worm’s-eye viewpoint. And because you’ve mounted your flag in the stamp-of-quality territory, your first-mover advantage means you will be hard to supplant if you go rogue?not to mention that if you do turn out to be corrupt, OA suffers a major and possibly unhealable black eye, because you’re all the stamp-of-quality heuristic there is.
This gaffe can be recovered from, OASPA, but I urge you to act fast. Apologize. Own the mistake. Start an investigation of Dove now, explaining clearly and publicly what you’re looking for and what you’ll do should you find that Dove has erred. It’s probably not too damaging that you don’t yet have a standard procedure for such investigations, given how young you are, but another thing you need to say clearly and publicly?and with a due date?is that such procedures are under active development. A screening procedure for OASPA applicants is a good idea as well.
Referring screenings and investigations to a well-chosen quorum of disinterested but appropriately critical third parties?dare I suggest “academic librarians?”?might work out well for you. Please consider it.
From the bottom of my heart, OASPA, I beg you: do not compound this error. We OA advocates need a responsible steward and monitor much too badly for you to go and squander all the initial goodwill you garnered.
This seems an opportune time to remind people of Book of Trogool’s comment policy. I will enforce it if I need to. I’d rather not need to, please.