I love a well-written methods section in a research communication. There, I said it. And as a peer reviewer, I often go to the methods in the manuscript under review in order to understand both the experiments that authors have designed and performed, and the rationale behind the flow and organization of different experiments, each yielding a separate piece of the overall puzzle in form of data. But I didn’t start out this way; this is the story of my evolution, as well as the woeful tale of a long-held (and recently re-encountered, in a high impact journal, no less) annoyance—poorly or inadequately written, incomplete methods.
Every so often, some paper happens to grab my attention for various reasons. As I read the paper, often I have questions. Not all of those questions, unfortunately, can be easily submitted for answers. In recent times, one such paper was published earlier this month in PLOS One. The great benefit of the Open-Access model of PLOS is that it allows a reader to ask questions directly of the authors. This level of engagement is very laudable, especially to someone like me who has an interest in the communication of scientific facts.
The science-associated blogosphere and Twitterverse were abuzz today with the news of a Gotcha! story published in today’s Science, the premier science publication from the American Association for Advancement of Science. Reporter John Bohannon, working for Science, fabricated a completely fictitious research paper detailing the purported “anti-cancer properties of a substance extracted from a lichen”, and submitted it under an assumed name to no less than 304 Open Access journals all over the world, over a course of 10 months.
Note: This is an old post that was supposed to have been auto-published on September 19, 2011 (!), but didn’t for some unknown reason. I found it in my list, and decided to go ahead and publish it today, because the message still remains valid.
My professional and personal interests often require me to browse through many scientific journals of various disciplines. I don’t always remember – I admit, shamefacedly – how fortunate I am, to be a member of a University system with an amazing collection of biomedical journals. The Hopkins library system, a fantastic system by any count, allows me online access to a huge array of journals when I am at work, and even when I am at home (by remotely logging in to the library system).
Yet, every so often, I become acutely aware of the systemic problem – the largely prevalent closed access publication system, because of which the results of Federally funded research work – and therefore, by extension, funded by our tax dollars – are not accessible to the general public. In the closed-access system, if an individual wishes to read a particular journal article, s/he needs to either be a member of some institution which has purchased an institutional subscription (for a massive fee – therefore, difficult for many smaller institutions in these times of cash crunch), or purchase an individual article for upwards of 15, 20, or 25 dollars. If one needs to follow up on the references, well, tough luck in absence of lucre.