One of my colleagues recently directed my attention to an article in the special section of the October 4th issue of Science (p.60) entitled, "Who's Afraid of Peer Review?" The subtitle to the article basically says it all, "A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals." The article is written by John Bohannon.
This is one of the more fascinating "sting operations" I've ever read about and the 6-page article makes for quick and enjoyable if somewhat frightening reading. The details of how the author prepared his multiple manuscript versions, replete with fictious names and institutions, and non-native English prose are described in some detail. Basically, Dr. Bohannon sent out over 300 minor variations of an article describing a "wonder drug" in cancer therapy to various on-line, open access journals. The study is so riddled with methodologic errors that anyone with a high-school science background should easily spot them.
For example it's clear that the tumoricidal effect on cancer cells, which in spite of a claim to the contrary is clearly NOT dose dependent, is due to the ethanol included with the buffer in the "wonder drug" and not applied to the control cells. Nonetheless, over half of the journals accepted the study, often requesting hefty fees for publication. Here we go "down the rabit hole," as Dr. Bohannon exclaims.
In the end, 157 on-line journals accepted the blatantly flawed manuscript and 98 rejected it. 49 journals never quite followed up with the author and some appeared to have "folded."
In essence, open access on-line journals have exploded onto the scene because they are lucrative, extracting fees from authors rather than subscribers or advertisers. Many of these journals have "American" in their title and list virtually non-existent offices in the United States but are, in reality, based in remote locations around the world, notably Mumbai, India, the site of a company known as Medknow which publishes 270 (at last count) on-line journals! Some of these third-world paper mills have even been recently acquired by reputable publishing houses (who will hopefully put an end to this mess).
It's not that there's anything wrong with open access. Most agree it's a good thing. The problem is controlling it and guaranteeing quality. Open access is not "free access." Someone has to support the operation if quality is to be maintained. In the traditional model, subscribers and advertisers supported journal costs, which can be substantial even in an on-line only publication. In the open access model, the authors pay a fee to allow any reader to access the article free of charge. Many funding agencies now mandate open access publication of any results produced from their funded studies, and fees for open access publication can be included in grant requests.
It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out. Clearly some unscrupulous folks have seen an opportunity to cash in on this new paradigm, fueled by increasing "publish or perish" pressures. As Dr. Bohannon noted we're currently in the "Wild West" phase of open access. Here's hoping for eventual law and order. Several watchdog sites, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) have already sprung up to rate these on-line journals, some of which are legitmate and publish first rate science. The end user would be well-advised to see out such sites before submitting any works.