Open Access News

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hoax exposes incompetence or worse at a Bentham OA journal

Philip Davis, Open Access Publisher Accepts Nonsense Manuscript for Dollars, Scholarly Kitchen, June 10, 2009.  Excerpt:

Would a publisher accept a completely nonsensical manuscript if the authors were willing to pay Open Access publication charges?  After being spammed with invitations to publish in Bentham Science journals earlier this year, I decided to find out.

Using SCIgen, a software that generates grammatically correct, “context-free” (i.e. nonsensical) papers in computer science, I quickly created an article, complete with figures, tables, and references.  It looks pretty professional until you read it. The opening sentences are typical:

The synthesis of the Ethernet is a confusing grand challenge. Given the current status of knowledgebased archetypes, statisticians particularly desire the refinement of superpages, which embodies the practical principles of software engineering. In order to address this riddle, we investigate how web browsers can be applied to the construction of the Ethernet.

The manuscript, entitled “Deconstructing Access Points” was submitted on January 29th, 2009, to The Open Information Science Journal (TOISCIJ), a journal that claims to enforce peer-review.

The manuscript was given two co-authors, David Phillips and Andrew Kent.  Any similarity to real or fictitious, living or dead academics is purely coincidental, as was their institutional affiliation: The Center for Research in Applied Phrenology based in Ithaca, New York....

Bentham confirmed receipt of my submission the very next day (January 30, 2009).  Nearly four months later, I received a response — the article was accepted.  The acceptance letter read:

This is to inform you that your submitted article has been accepted for publication after peer-reviewing process in TOISCIJ. I would be highly grateful to you if you please fill and sign the attached fee form and covering letter and send them back via email as soon as possible to avoid further delay in publication.

The letter was written by a Ms. Sana Mokarram, the Assistant Manager of Publication.  She included a fee schedule and confirmation that I would pay US$800, to be sent to a post office box  in the SAIF Zone, a tax-free complex in the  United Arab Emirates.  The manuscript was subsequently retracted [by the authors]:

Dear Ms. Mokarram,
I’m afraid that we have to retract this article.  We have discovered several errors in the manuscript which question both the validity of the study and the results.

I have yet to receive a response....

From this one case, we cannot conclude that Bentham Science journals practice no peer review, only that it is inconsistently applied.  Earlier this year, I reported on a case in which a nonsensical article submitted to another Bentham Science journal was rejected after going through peer review.

While one should be careful not to generalize these results to other Open Access journals using similar business models, it does raise the question of whether, at least in some cases, the producer-pays-to-publish model may unduly influence editorial decision-making.  One may also question whether publishers like Bentham see a lucrative opportunity from the OA movement, considering that academic libraries are establishing author publication funds to pay Open Access charges.

Also see Kent Anderson's follow-up post in the same blog:

...Our hope was that this experiment would fail. We hoped that Bentham Science Publishers would prove to be rigorous and uniform in their application of peer-review....Unfortunately, Bentham wasn’t up to the task. But there’s a larger issue this incident reveals, tangential to the story about Bentham....

It’s important that everyone in academic publishing realize there is a feeder issue at play — the swelling pools of author-pays funding, how they’re being managed, and policies around their use.

As Phil Davis has pointed out in other posts on this blog, there is a lack of transparency to how author funds are being spent and the oversight of these funds may not be adequate. In addition to pots of money coming from institutions, other pots of money have also opened up to support author-pays publishing — in early May, Pfizer agreed to cover author fees for any of their employees submitting to BioMed Central.

Institutions should contemplate how their policies and practices supporting author publication fees may encourage the emergence of publishing programs aimed at soliciting and accepting as many papers as possible. With poorly managed sources of funding (i.e., easy money), blaming these publishers is akin to treating a symptom of a more fundamental and deleterious malady....

But it may not be the author-pays model itself that introduces the fatal flaw.

Instead, it may be the administrators of the funding who have shown an Achilles‘ heel — lax oversight, a lack of transparency, motivations to support the “publish or perish” culture of academia today, and an inability to hold publishers accountable for services rendered....


  • There has been public suspicion about Bentham's operation for more than a year now (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  In April 2008, Richard Poynder interviewed the Bentham Editorial Director, Matthew Honan, to get the company's response to criticism, especially criticism for spamming researchers to submit papers or join editorial boards.  In the interview Honan would not identify the owners of the company and would not say why.
  • The Davis-Anderson hoax clearly uncovered incompetence at this Bentham journal.  We have to ask whether the journal lies about performing peer review or just performs it so badly that it's equivalent to no review at all.  Even if the journal were cynically trying to maximize revenue from publication fees, a competent scam would not have accepted the Davis drivel.
  • The Sokal hoax proved something important about lax standards, either within a given journal or within the larger field of postmodern cultural studies.  So I don't criticize this sort of hoax as such and prefer to focus on the conclusions to draw from it.
  • There's no doubt that OA journals can be strong or weak, just as TA journals can be strong or weak.  The question is whether we're dealing with a very weak journal or with something larger.  Davis himself wants to be "careful not to generalize these results to other Open Access journals using similar business models, [though] it does raise the question of whether, at least in some cases, the producer-pays-to-publish model may unduly influence editorial decision-making."  Anderson builds on Davis' question to ask a slightly different one --not whether publication fees unduly influence editorial decisions but whether institutions willing to pay those fees on behalf of authors should take greater responsibility for the quality of the work they fund.
  • We've known since the Kaufman-Wills report in 2005 that many more TA journals (by numbers and percentages) charge author-side fees than OA journals.  At that time, a slight majority of OA journals charged no fees at all, while only 23.4% of ALPSP journals overall charged no fees.  Kaufman and Wills reported similar numbers for other collections of TA journals.  Since then, a new study has put the percentage of no-fee OA journals at over 70%.  I haven't seen a new study of the percentage of no-fee TA journals.  These studies should help us avoid a careless generalization.  As I put it in a 2006 article:
    [I]insofar as charging fees for accepted papers is an incentive to lower standards, many more subscription journals are guilty than OA journals.  We know this even before we take into account that OA journals with many excellent submissions can often accept more papers without lowering standards (because they have no size limits) and OA journals with a dearth of excellent submissions can accept fewer papers without shortchanging subscribers (because they have no subscribers).  We know it before we take into account that OA journal fees are much closer to "subsistence-level" compensation than typical subscription fees.  We know it before we take into account that subscription journals justify price increases by pointing to the growing volume of published articles....We know it before we take into account that subscription journals with lower standards and lower rejection rates have higher profit margins (because they perform peer review fewer times per published paper).
  • Anderson is right that institutions paying publishers should take responsibility to monitor how their money is spent.  But the principle is a general one.  It doesn't matter whether the journal pays reader-side subscription fees or author-side publication fees.  Or if author-side publication fees somehow call for greater vigilance, then institutions should exercise that vigilance over the larger set of fee-charging TA journals as well as the smaller set of fee-charging OA journals.  The fake Elsevier journals show that money can corrupt editorial judgment at TA journals, even at publishers with better reputations to uphold and astronomically more money in the bank to buffer against temptation.  I raise this here only to prevent a one-sided conclusion.  I have no desire to shift attention away from dishonest practices the OA side of the line.  On the contrary, I want to drive dishonest OA journals out of the field.  They give OA a bad name and impede its growth.  This matters to OA proponents even more than to its critics.  We know that OA is compatible with the highest levels of quality (1, 2) and want to put it to work accelerating high-quality research in every field.
  • For other news and comment on this story, see the items tagged oa.bentham in the OA tracking project

Update.  Also see Bob Grant's article in The Scientist.  One new nugget:

...I called Richard Morrissy, who's listed as the US contact for Bentham Science Publishers on the company's website, but he declined to answer my questions and instead directed me to his supervisor, Matthew Honan, who works in Bentham's France office. Honan does not have a phone number, according to Morrissy....

Update.  Klaus Graf calls for a boycott of Bentham.  See his comments in German or Google's English.

Update.  Also see Paul Basken's article on the Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog.  The comment section is starting to grow.

UpdateJURN, the search engine for OA journals in the arts and humanities, has stopped indexing Bentham journals.

UpdateTom Wilson argues that the Bentham scandal is another reason to prefer no-fee OA journals.

Update (6/11/09).  Peter Aldhous in New Scientist reviews similar hoaxes in which journals or conferences were caught accepting outright nonsense.  He also got an official response from Bentham:

...Mahmood Alam, Bentham's director of publications, responded to queries from New Scientist by email: "In this particular case we were aware that the article submitted was a hoax, and we tried to find out the identity of the individual by pretending the article had been accepted for publication when in fact it was not."

"Why hasn't he attempted to contact me directly in order to determine my true identity?" Davis responds....

Update (6/11/09).  Also see Norman Oder's article in Library Journal.

Update (6/11/09).  The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) points out several ways in which practices at Bentham Science appear to fall short of the association's code of conduct, and that Bentham is not a member of OASPA.

Update (6/11/09).  According to Bob Grant in The Scientist, the editor of the journal accepting the computer-generated nonsense paper, Bambang Parmanto, an information scientist at the U of Pittsburgh, has resigned.

Update (6/13/09).  Dorothea Salo wants universities with OA journal funds to refuse to pay publication fees charged by Bentham-like publishers, and wants librarians to help identify the Bentham-like publishers.

Update (6/15/09).  Kirsten at Into the Stacks wonders whether libraries should continue to support links to Bentham journals, and whether the DOAJ should continue to list them.

Update (6/15/09).  Also see Natasha Gilbert's article in Nature News.  Bentham is standing by the story that it knew the paper was a hoax and pretended to accept it in order to learn the authors' true identities.