I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals
In 2011, after having read several really bad papers in the journal Science, I decided to explore just how slipshod their peer-review process is. I knew that their business depends on publishing “sexy” papers. So I created a manuscript that claimed something extraordinary - that I’d discovered a bacteria that uses arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorous. But I made the science so egregiously bad that no competent peer reviewer would accept it. The approach was deeply flawed – there were poor or absent controls in every figure. I used ludicrously elaborate experiments where simple ones would have done. And I failed to include a simple, obvious experiment that would have definitively shown that arsenic was really in the bacteria’s DNA. I then submitted the paper to Science, punching up the impact the work would have on our understanding of extraterrestrials and the origins of life on Earth in the cover letter. And what do you know? They accepted it!
My sting exposed the seedy underside of “subscription-based” scholarly publishing, where some journals routinely lower their standards – in this case by sending the paper to reviewers they knew would be sympathetic - in order to pump up their impact factor and increase subscription revenue. Maybe there are journals out there who do subscription-based publishing right – but my experience should serve as a warning to people thinking about submitting their work to Science and other journals like it.
OK – this isn’t exactly what happened. I didn’t actually write the paper. Far more frighteningly, it was a real paper that contained all of the flaws described above that was actually accepted, and ultimately published, by Science.
I am dredging the arsenic DNA story up again, because today’s Science contains a story by reporter John Bohannon describing a “sting” he conducted into the peer review practices of open access journals. He created a deeply flawed paper about molecules from lichens that inhibit the growth of cancer cells, submitted it to 304 open access journals under assumed names, and recorded what happened. Of the 255 journals that rendered decisions, 157 accepted the paper, most with no discernible sign of having actually carried out peer review. (PLOS ONE, rejected the paper, and was one of the few to flag its ethical flaws).
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