Researchers in the scientific, technical and medical field are on the forefront of the world's latest innovations and developments. Their findings are the foundation that progress is built upon. Over the past decade, technological advancements have provided the STM community with a wide range of tools that have allowed them to significantly enhance researching capabilities and contribute to ground-breaking discoveries.
One topic that has become increasingly controversial is open access journals. This publishing model is intended to provide scientists, authors and researchers with a free, interactive platform for sharing, discovering and reproducing works. Those in favor of open source publications insist that this approach enables better collaboration and stronger research. Others argue that it negates the very purpose of the traditional publishing structure and that, by loosening peer-review policies and lowering the barriers for journal publications, the integrity and credibility of authors' findings are threatened.
Open access journal controversy
This debate was further fueled recently when PLOS ONE journal published, "Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living." This scientific paper was written by a group of authors, three from Huazhong University in China and one from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, that made several references to a "Creator" throughout the article, independent.co.uk reported. After reading it, many members of the scientific community were outraged and demanded that it be retracted. The authors apologized, saying it was a translation error and that they did not aim to make any implications about God. The journal issued a statement on its website apologizing for the mistake, assuring that it would be retracted and attributing the problem to the peer review process, saying it "did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work."
"Open access journals have different publishing qualifications that need to be considered."
And while much of the upset is likely due to the theological references, some argued that the main issue at hand is that it points to a flaw with the open access journal format for scientific publications.
However, as Vivian Siegel pointed out in The Daily Beacon, open-access journals have different publishing processes and qualifications that should be considered in criticizing the occurrence of an error. For example, he said, PLOS ONE requires the accurate use of data and, if it is approved during peer-review, the paper will likely be published if it contains information and research that others in the STM community could find useful.
"This episode doesn't imply a fundamental problem with the open-access model," Siegel explained. "The reality is that even top journals have problems with their publication process. PLOS ONE in 2013 alone released over 31,000 articles, or about 90 every day." Some other traditional journals, he added, don't publish that many over the source of a month.
Statistically speaking, a journal that publishes a high volume of papers will likely have more errors.
Resolving issue of irreproducible research
Still, there is a problem with scientific papers being retracted. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Medical School Dean Dr. Jeffrey Flier recently indicated that as the number of high-profile cases involving published papers being retracted grows, it is causing reputational damage to STM research community as a whole because people are beginning to see these findings as irreproducible.
According to Flier, the majority of irreproducible research can be classified under one of three categories: improper study and/or analysis, misconduct and unethical practices or flaws in the review and publishing process. He explained that the STM community is extremely competitive and publishing in scientific journals can enhance the credibility of a researcher's findings.
"Scientific journals are the major vehicle for disseminating science, yet there is little active effort to determine how best to deliver research results," Flier argued. "In short, we need a science of how to publish science."
To improve the state of the publishing world, Flier suggested that journals should disclose to authors who the reviewers are. While keeping this information anonymous, like it has traditionally been done, might safeguard the reviewers from angry or dissatisfied researchers, it could lead to "self-serving or superficial reviews." In addition, journals could benefit by publishing the comments and responses made by editors and authors, as well as more online discussion post-publication.
Although the opinions on open source journals may vary, there is no denying the importance of having ethical, reliable and quality publications among the STM community. In the effort to provide the scientific field with innovative discoveries and reproducible research, it is crucial that researchers have access to the latest data and work of other scientists in the industry. And while the traditional process of peer-reviewed journals may make it more difficult for authors to release findings, this does not necessarily guarantee better work. Similarly, it shouldn't be assumed that the easier a work is to publish, the lower in quality it must be.