At COPE we have followed with intense interest the recent report in Science of a fake paper submitted to multiple journals, some of whom accepted it. There is no doubt that this "sting" raises a number of issues, that academic publishing and those who seek to improve it, need to tackle head on-though I'd argue they are not necessarily the ones that Science thinks are top priorities.
What have we learnt?
First, that out on the Internet there exist many journals whose peer review is scanty or non-existent. Indeed for many of these journals their editorial processes, reviewer boards and editors may not even exist. That, in other words, the Internet has sites we cannot trust. This is of course not news; as Mike Eisen said in an earlier discussion on this issue, journals such as this are the publishing equivalent of Nigerian banking scams.
Second, that some of these questionable journals have managed to get themselves onto the lists of respected industry association bodies - including COPE. At COPE, some may have been included because they were in the lists of journals submitted by reputable publishers but others may have been included because, as we are very aware at COPE, our processes for inclusion have not in the past been set up to screen every journal individually or to scrutinise publishers in great depth. We have been aware of the increasing number of journals seeking to join us and we have recently increased our checks on those who seek to join - either as a publisher or an individual journal - and this will be a further spur to improve our processes here.
Third, we have learnt that considerable confusion still remains about what constitutes an "open-access" journal and that the term may be used as a cover for journals that seek credibility. However, as many commentators have said, because this article only looked at journals that styled themselves as "open access" it tells us nothing about whether the failing of peer review demonstrated here are due to a particular business model, particularly as practised by reputable publishers.
Fourth, and perhaps most worryingly of all, we have learnt from the coverage in the non-scientific press, who are always looking for a good scandal, that an unforeseen consequence of this experiment may be to cast doubt on the entire publishing industry and peer review’s place in it. It may further confuse the public who genuinely struggle to understand what they should trust in the myriad of research findings that are published each day.
What are the constructive next steps?
First, COPE was founded as an organisation that seeks to educate and support its members and this drives what we do day-to-day. Our focus is on practical, pragmatic advice and to that end we produce a number of resources for members, which provide concrete guidance that can also be used by anyone involved in publishing. Our most recent guidelines, which are especially relevant, set out the basic principles and standards to which all peer reviewers should adhere during the peer-review process. We encourage everyone involved in journal publishing to read them.
Second, journals or publishers who do not share COPE's values have no place as members. We are looking at which of our member journals accepted the paper; however, we do not think it is our role to punish journals who are genuinely trying to improve their processes and we will continue to work with them, including providing advice for any members that have to retract the fake paper submitted to them by Science.
Third, we also believe that this is an opportunity to further educate the public about the role that journals and peer review play in science communication, to help them understand that no paper published is ever perfect or carries a stamp that it won't at some time in the future be revised or called into question and that peer review, even at the most prestigious journals, frequently does not spot fraud or questionable research.
Finally, we hope at COPE that this article provides further impetus to the debate about how science is communicated and its strengths and flaws, whatever the business model.