Some Open Access (OA) advocates shocked by the shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) may not be aware of the OA link to the story: The last paper authored by Amy Bishop — the researcher charged with killing three of her colleagues – was published in the International Journal of General Medicine, an OA journal published by New Zealand-based OA publisher Dove Medical Press. Since Bishop cited three of her teenage daughters as co-authors of the paper, and Dove charges an article-processing fee for publishing papers, commentators have been quick to conclude that OA is little more than vanity publishing. Dove is a member of the Open Access Publishers Association (OASPA). Is OASPA asleep at the wheel?
On 12th February 2010, Amy Bishop, a 45-year-old biology professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, allegedly shot dead three of her colleagues and wounded three others — in what was quickly characterised as a rampage shooting.
Reporting on the incident the following day the New York Daily News explained: “Bishop returned to the faculty meeting shortly after being denied tenure around 4 p.m. and opened fire in a third-floor meeting room at the Shelby Center for Science and Technology,”
The paper added that if she is convicted Bishop, a Harvard University-trained neuroscientist, could face the death penalty.
As news reporters and bloggers began sifting through the data in an effort to understand what had gone so tragically wrong, and why Bishop had been denied tenure (assumed to be the trigger for the shooting), they soon alighted on her web site.
“Most of Ms. Bishop's published papers concern nitric oxide, a molecule that cells use to communicate with other cells,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on 15th February. “But at high levels, nitric oxide is toxic. It is believed to play a role in the development of certain cancers — and also neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease.
“If those mechanisms can be somehow turned into genetic therapies," continued The Chronicle, "they might eventually lead to new treatments for a variety of neurogenerative ailments. That was the premise of a $219,750 grant that Ms. Bishop received in 2008 from the National Institutes of Health.”
However, it seems that UAH had concluded that Bishop was not showing sufficient promise to justify being given tenure. “[A]ccording to several accounts — including a Chronicle interview with her husband on Sunday — Ms. Bishop's output was not regarded as adequate by the tenure committee at Alabama," explained The Chronicle. "She was notified last spring that she did not get tenure, and although she made several appeals of that decision, they were ultimately unsuccessful.”
All of which would seem to imply that UAH's decision was heavily influenced by Bishop's publication record. And that apparently was not so great: she had published only one peer-reviewed paper in each of the years 2004, 2005, and 2006, and she published no papers at all in 2007 and 2008, reported The Chronicle.
True, last year Bishop published three papers, but this was still not deemed sufficient — partly, The Chronicle seemed to suggest, because one of those papers "appeared in the little-known International Journal of General Medicine”. As we've stated, this is an OA journal published by Dove Medical Press.
The Chronicle added that other biologists who do similar work on neurodegenerative disorders “tend to publish at a much faster clip.”
However it was Bishop's OA paper — entitled ‘Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival — that journalists and bloggers began to home in on, and not without cause perhaps.
On 15th February, for instance, The Daily Kos pointed out that the International Journal of General Medicine charges authors to publish their papers. This fact alone, The Daily Kos seemed to imply, meant that the paper would have been inadequate. But there was more.
“Forget the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education calls the journal ‘little-known’. Forget the fact that the it's a vanity journal, which only has an ‘honorary’ rather than a real editorial board and which rapidly accepts and publishes almost anything submitted, as long as the author pays the publication fee of many hundreds of dollars. Forget the fact that the journal is published by ‘Dove Medical Press,’ which is infamous for spamming people about its fraudulent journals. Here's the kicker — Bishop almost certainly listed her own minor children as the lead authors of the article!”
The Daily Kos' conclusion, it seems, was that any researcher who pays to publish their work must be engaged in some form of vanity publishing. If, in addition, the author cites her own children as co-authors the quality of that work must inevitably be low. That the publisher also promises to make the papers it publishes available rapidly seemed only to confirm such a conclusion.
Initially it was The Daily Kos' "kicker" that attracted most attention, and was invariably viewed as evidence not only that Bishop's work was inferior, but that Dove Medical Press and (by implication) OA at large was suspect.
On February 18th the Wall Street Journal noted : “On the university's Web site, Ms. Bishop listed 16 published academic articles that she co-authored between 1992 and 2009. The most recent listed article was published in May 2009 and names her husband and three of her four children, all of whom are under 19 years of age, as co-authors.”
Bishop’s husband, James Anderson Jr., (also 45), told the WSJ that the paper was “a family research effort that evolved out of a science-fair project. ‘Some families do soccer. We do science’.”
A week later the Boston Herald devoted an entire news story to the Dove paper, under the headline: “Amy Bishop, husband listed teens on research paper”.
When The Herald asked UAH spokesman Ray Garner about the paper, he insisted that the school was unaware that Bishop and Anderson had put their daughters’ names to a research project, “for which the paper also credits the school and the couple’s home-based science research company Cherokee Lab Systems. ‘It’s unusual,’ Garner said.”
For by now another blogger had discovered that “googling with street view the claimed address for Cherokee Labsystems — 2103 McDowling Dr. SE, Huntsville, AL — shows a residential home and not a laboratory allegedly involved in genetic research.”
By 20th February The New York Times also appeared to have concluded that having a research paper published in an OA journal was to engage in vanity publishing. Indeed it directly referred to the International Journal of General Medicine as a vanity journal or, as it put it, "essentially a scientific vanity press."
As interest in the Dove paper grew news reports began to use the term OA directly, and generally not in a flattering way. In a further NYT news report published on 22nd February, the paper commented. “One 2009 paper was published in The International Journal of General Medicine. Its publisher, Dovepress, says it specialises in ‘open access peer-reviewed journals.’ On its Web site, the company says, ‘Dove will publish your paper if it is deemed of interest to someone, therefore your chance of having your paper accepted is very high (it would be a very unusual paper that wasn’t of interest to someone).”
But is it fair to characterise Dove, or OA publishing at large, as "essentially a scientific vanity press"? After all, this assumes that published papers are not peer reviewed. However, while it clearly it has not helped that Bishop cited three of her teenage children as co-authors of her paper, can we conclude from that that Dove does not have papers evaluated before publishing them?
Not necessarily: On the same page that The Daily Kos cites as evidence that Dove's journal is a vanity publication it is also stated, “Although peer review is rapid it is also very thorough — at least 2 peer reviewers comment on each paper. Many authors have found that our peer reviewer’s comments substantially add to their final papers.”
On the other hand, Dove's claim that it will publish anything "deemed of interest to someone" could imply something quite different.
Who then would have made the decision to publish the Bishop paper, and is it possible to confirm that Bishop's paper was peer reviewed? When I spoke to Dove Medical Press Publisher Tim Hill in 2008 he said: “The Editor-in-Chief and/or their Associate Editors make the decision as to what is published and what is rejected.”
So I emailed the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of General Medicine Professor Scott Fraser, a consultant ophthalmologist at Sunderland Eye Infirmary in the North East of England. My emails, however, have so far gone unanswered.
(In looking up Fraser's name on the Dove site I was surprised to note that he appears to be the Editor-in-Chief of no less than nine Dove journals).
I also emailed Hill. Could he confirm that Bishop's paper was peer reviewed? And was he aware that Bishop had cited three of her teenage daughters as co-authors of her paper?
“We do ask that all co-authors be cited in any paper sent to us,” Hill replied. “Dr Amy Bishop was the corresponding author of this paper. Her paper (‘Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival’) was peer-reviewed by 3 experts and revised by Dr Bishop prior to an editorial decision to accept the revised paper for publication.”
Hill concluded: “It appears, on the basis of media reports, that she [Bishop] was in breach of our authorship criteria.”
The problem is that as the number of controversial incidents connected with OA continues to grow (e.g. here, here and here) it is no longer enough for OA publishers simply to assure the public that the papers they publish are peer reviewed. It has got to the point where they really need to be able to demonstrate that it is so.
What would doubtless help, therefore, is if OA publishers embraced the practice of open peer review. After all, if reviewer reports were all freely available on the Web the world would be far better able to judge whether or not a paper had been peer reviewed, and how thoroughly.
In fact, some OA journals do already practice open peer review — including some of the journals published by BioMed Central (e.g. here) and OA journals like Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP) — e.g. here.
Dove, however, does not. As Hill explained to me in 2008, “We adhere to the traditional manner of conducting peer review."
But peer review is only one issue: There is also the issue of author-pays. The media response to the Bishop paper, and the assumptions made, has served once again to draw attention to the fact that the author-pays business model that most OA publishers (and a growing number of subscription publishers) now utilise is deeply problematic. In fact, it has become the Achilles Heel of the OA movement. As The Daily Kos post amply demonstrates, whatever its claimed merits or demerits, the public is deeply sceptical about it.
Nor is it just the public: It is becoming increasingly apparent to the research community that the APC rates now being levied by OA publishers are unjustifiably high, and that asking authors to pay to publish is prone to abuse (which would appear to confirm public scepticism).
Whatever the details of the publication process the Bishop paper was subjected to, and the thoroughness with which it was evaluated, the incident has undoubtedly been an embarrassment for Dove. Since Dove is a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, an organisation created to self-regulate the OA publishing market, it is also an embarrassment to the OA publishing community at large.
In its efforts at self-regulation OASPA has drawn up a code of conduct. This code of conduct does not require OA publishers to verify the identities of all the authors cited in papers they publish, but the publicity around the Bishop paper has underlined the continuing credibility problem that OA publishers face, and the difficulties of maintaining adequate quality control in an environment in which authors have to pay to be published.
What are OASPA's views on the incident? In the hope of finding out I emailed a list of questions to the organisation. Amongst other things, I asked whether OASPA was concerned that three teenage children had been cited as co-authors of a peer-reviewed paper published by one of its members, whether it felt that having one person act as Editor-in-Chief of nine Dove journals might not be excessive, and whether it was desirable that the International Journal of General Medicine should have only an honorary editorial board.
In reply I received a short statement: “The issue raised could affect any publisher, and we do not wish to be drawn into a discussion around this tragic incident.”
Many subscription publishers would doubtless disagree that the same thing could happen to any publisher. Be that as it may, the whole episode serves once again to cast OA in an unsavoury light, and must surely leave researchers, research institutions, as well as the tax-paying public, with the strong impression that OA publishing is a somewhat shoddy business. Unfortunately, OASPA's reply suggests that OA publishers remain dangerously oblivious to the credibility gap yawning in front of them.
Certainly some librarians appear to be baffled. On 23rd February Beth Transue, a librarian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, posted a note to the MEDLIB-L mailing list. Providing a link to the NYT article of 20th February she commented: "Making this situation more complicated is that the publisher [Dove] is a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, which also lists members such as BioMed Central, BMJ Group, Oxford University Press, and Sage. It isn't clear to me how Dove became a member of this association, given their review practices, especially in comparison with these other reputable publishers."
Transue then asked: "Has anyone on this list had any experience with this publisher or journal?."Do you have it listed in your holdings? Do you plan to remove it from your holdings lists? We are considering removing all journals from this publisher from our holdings, and I was wondering about what other libraries might be doing."
The Bishop incident raises one further issue, or at least it ought to: and that is another issue of transparency — because Dove is one of a number of OA publishers strangely secretive about who owns and manages its business.
When I spoke to Hill in 2008 he would say only: “The company headquarters are in the UK. We have offices in the UK and here in Auckland. Dove is owned by six private individuals and we have some 20 employees.”
When I pressed Hill to name those six individuals, he declined. Not only is that odd in itself, but it is odd that OAPSA failed to ask the same question before welcoming Dove into its organisation. Even today OASPA has no idea who owns Dove. Since one of the reasons for founding OASPA was to help improve transparency in the OA publishing market this seems anomalous indeed.
So far as Hill is concerned the question of who owns a private company is nobody's business but its own. Many, however, would disagree, especially when that company makes its profits out of public funds. As I put it in 2008: “[I]t is primarily public money that researchers will be using to pay to have their scholarly papers published in OA journals. Is it not reasonable therefore for taxpayers to expect to know exactly what is being provided for that money, and who will benefit from any profits that are made as a result?”
And I am not alone in believing this. Commenting on my interview with Hill, Cornell's Phil Davis remarked at the time: “The interesting thread that Poynder explores is the lack of transparency (and thus accountability) of some of these start-up companies. While certainly not limited to OA publishers, the open access movement is very focused on transparency and public accountability as central framing issues. One may argue that access to public funds requires both access to the output of the research and access to how the money was spent. You can't have it both ways.”
Peter Suber, de facto leader of the OA movement, is also uncomfortable with the lack of transparency over the ownership of some OA publishers. In fact, he told me, he had been under the impression that transparency of ownership was a pre-condition for membership of OASPA. "At least I am deeply suspicious of publishers who are unwilling to disclose their owners," he told me. "We need that kind of transparency to be able to investigate whether the owners have financial interests, e.g. with pharma companies, that might compromise the integrity of their journals."
Time to wake up
In short, what many OA publishers seem to have failed to take on board is that OA raises transparency issues not just about the quality of the services provided, but about the public's right to know how tax-payers' money is being spent, and who is pocketing the proceeds.
Given the number of scholarly publishing scandals in recent years it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public to trust the peer review process; when the ownership of the companies in charge of that process is similarly non-transparent, public confidence in how its tax dollars are being spent can only be further undermined. What is needed is transparency both of process and of ownership.
All in all, it is hard not to conclude that OASPA has fallen asleep at the wheel. Now is the time to wake up. And the first thing it should do — after smelling the coffee — is to insist that Dove either immediately publish full details of its ownership, or leave the organisation. And is it not also time for OASPA to set about persuading members to embrace open peer review? Transparency aside, the latter would have the benefit of helping to assuage the growing concerns about possible abuse of author-pays publishing.
Whatever it does, OASPA is going sooner or later to have to address the poor public image associated with author-pays scholarly publishing.
I hope in the near future to return to the question of the ownership of Dove Medical Press — as well as the ownership of Libertas Academica, the OA publisher managed by Tim Hill’s son Tom Hill (likewise based in New Zealand).