OASPA’s second statement following the article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

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Since OASPA released its first response to the Science ‘Sting’ article published in October, the OASPA Board has been looking at the implications of the findings for the organisation and its members.

There has also been much discussion of the Science article, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the exercise and associated data, along with the way that Science has presented this work to the media.  In general, we feel that this follow-up has served to emphasise two key points: the data provide useful insight into editorial practices at a number of substandard ; no conclusions can be drawn as to whether poor practices are more or less prevalent at subscription-based or open-access journals.

The work at OASPA has been conducted, in consultation with the OASPA board, by the membership subcommittee, comprising Caroline Sutton, Catriona MacCallum, Claire Redhead and Mark Patterson.

We have looked at the data concerning the who were identified in the Science sting as having accepted and rejected the article.  Initially four publisher members were indicated as having accepted the article.  However one of those, African Journals Online (AJOL), was incorrectly indentified.  AJOL is not a publisher, but is a non-profit organisation that provides free online hosting and aggregation services to qualifying African journals.  This information has been corrected on the Science website.  AJOL has let OASPA know that the African Journal of Biomedical Research, published by Ibadan Biomedical Communications Group, was deemed in compliance with AJOL’s inclusion criteria when it applied to AJOL for free hosting but has not sent content for upload by AJOL since 2008. To date, accepted journals have not been re-assessed to determine if they are continuing to adhere to AJOL’s inclusion criteria. However, AJOL has been developing a process (which will be in place by the end of 2014) to address the need for ongoing quality assessment of partner journals.

Three further OASPA members publish journals that accepted the article: Hikari (Clinical and Experimental Medical Sciences), Dove Medical Press (Drug Design, Development and Therapy) and SAGE (Journal of International Medical Research).  For each of these we have carefully reviewed the correspondence made available by Science, the journal’s editorial practices, and have contacted relevant individuals for further information.  We have been very grateful in all cases for prompt feedback.   Our key conclusion from these discussions is that there was a lack of sufficient rigour in editorial processes at all three of the journals in question, and that for Hikari and Dove the issues may extend wider than the single affected journal.  Given OASPA’s commitment to high standards in all aspects of open-access publishing, we are therefore reluctantly terminating the memberships of Hikari and Dove Medical Press.  We have indicated that we will be willing to reconsider a membership application but not before 12 months have elapsed.

For SAGE, we have placed their OASPA membership ‘under review’ for the next 6 months, at which point we will review the journal in question and readmit SAGE as a full member if there is evidence that its processes have been sufficiently strengthened.  The different course of action that we have taken with SAGE reflects several issues:  (1) the editorial process at the Journal of International Medical Research is very unusual and not typical of any of the other journals at SAGE; (2) although the Science journalist was told that the article had been accepted, there was in fact a remaining step in the process (a detailed technical edit by domain experts) that is likely to have identified the deficiencies in the work; (3) SAGE acted promptly to cease taking submissions to the journal as soon as the problem had been identified, issued a press release explaining the situation, and has been very open about the problems that have been uncovered; and (4) SAGE has a very strong and longstanding reputation for responsible and ethical publishing practices.

We have also reviewed the correspondence released by Science in relation to members of OASPA that rejected the article, with a view to identifying any lessons that can be learned.   The weakness that seems to account most frequently for the failure of the editorial process in the journals that accepted the fake article was a lack of expert editorial accountability for the key decision points: the assignment of reviewers; assessment of review comments and decision letter; and the final acceptance decision.  Robust editorial processes require an engaged editor (usually an experienced academic researcher, but occasionally a suitably qualified staff editor) to take responsibility for these key decision points.

Another important action that OASPA has therefore taken is to strengthen its own membership procedures. The existing process requires an applicant to complete a form about its organisation and its practices with respect to key areas including licensing, publication fees, organisational status and ownership, and editorial practices, in particular peer review.  We have now added more detailed questions about the editorial process to the application form, focusing on the key decision points and how these are conducted. The answers to these questions will be added to the page that we provide on the OASPA site about each member (eg http://oaspa.org/member-record-american-institute-of-physics/). If we have any uncertainty about the answers given, then we also contact editors who are listed by the journal to seek their views on the journal and the publisher in question.  (We have already been doing this over the past year.)

In conclusion, although we have unfortunately now terminated memberships as a result of the Science news article, positive outcomes have also arisen from its publication.  The article highlights the need for organisations such as OASPA and DOAJ to act as important signals of reliable and high-quality publishing operations, and both organisations are strengthening their selection criteria. There will always be poor practices in any field, and if evidence of poor practice is identified, action can and will be taken. We encourage anyone with an interest in the integrity of research communication to report concerns to OASPA and DOAJ. At OASPA in particular our aim is to provide help and support where we can, so that new and genuine participants have the opportunity to thrive and so that we can build on the tremendous strides in open-access publishing that have been achieved throughout the world over the past 15 years.

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