Open Access Is Not The Problem – My Take On Science’s Peer Review “Sting”

Michael Eisen | The Berkeley Blog | October 4, 2013

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 species of bacteria that uses arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus. 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.