Societies // September 21st, 2009

Bentham Affair


“Would a publisher accept a completely nonsensical manuscript if the authors were willing to pay Open Access publication charges?” This is the premise behind a test I conducted earlier this year. After being spammed repeatedly by Bentham Publishers with submission requests and invitations to join editorial boards on topics I had absolutely no experience, I decided to find out. This meant submitting a computer-generated paper to a journal and seeing what happened. The result confirmed my speculation: if I sent $800 to a post office box in a tax-free zone in the United Arab Emirates, I could have anything published.

I won’t cover any more details of the affair as readers may entertain themselves in a humorous description of events from the Scholarly Kitchen [1]. In this short piece, I would like to cover a few broader issues related to the Bentham Affair, namely, how organizations deal with crises, ethical issues related to the experiment, and lastly, the implications this event has on scholarly publishing.

How organizations react to crises

Organizations are complex beasts. They involve many people at multiple levels. In the case of scholarly publishers, the majority of actors in the system are academics, distributed around the world in their own organizations. Getting a response in a timely manner involves massive coordination and communication, which is why most organizations are slow to respond when a quick response is crucial. However, it is more important to get the response right and there is a simple narrative that most organizations fail to follow: 1) admit fault, 2) identify and correct the source of failure, and 3) reaffirm the perception of trust. Unlike other industries, publishers have little more than their name as assets which is why maintaining the public’s sense of trust is paramount to getting over public scandals.

Bentham could have reacted quickly and methodologically to the affair by accepting that they made a simple mistake, blaming the accepted article on an administrative error/software glitch/inexperience with the English language, and lastly, reaffirming the publisher’s commitment to high-quality peer review.

Instead, the publisher responded that the paper was indeed peer reviewed [2], blamed me as the unethical party in the affair [3], and constructed an implausible and contradictory story that they were playing along with the hoax all along [2,3]. This line of action led to the resignation of the editor-in-chief along with other editorial board resignations and a public backlash has put the credibility of this publisher in doubt. Clearly, most of the damage was self-inflicted.

Ethics

The ethics of this affair are complex and may be framed and interpreted differently depending on the choice of words. Was it a “hoax”, a “satire”, a “prank”, a “fraud”, a “test”, or an “experiment”? Is there an absolute definition of ethical conduct, or does context matter? As Hannah Devlin, writing for the Times (London) asked rhetorically “is it OK to be temporarily dishonest to reveal a greater evil?” [4]

I take academic integrity very seriously, which is why the notion of engaging in an act which may be perceived as deceptive was not taken lightheartedly. Yet, the scientific publishing system runs on an implicit level of trust. In the case of Bentham, an author must trust that in return for paying a fee, a manuscript would receive proper editorial and peer review prior to publication. The trust system also extends to readers, who are told that articles branded with the publisher’s name are credible and valid documents, as well as to those willing to fund the publishing process (granting agencies and academic libraries).

I could imagine no other way to validate the claims of this publisher with the exception of testing the system itself. I would hope that the scientific community views this exercise as just that — a test — and one that this publisher unfortunately failed. Rebuilding the trust of the scientific community after this crisis will require an enormous amount of work.

Implications for scholarly publishing

It is understandable why some view the Bentham Affair as evidence that author-pays open access publishing is susceptible to lowering standards approaching a vanity press model. Others are quick to react that we should not view this as more than a single, isolated event. Are there any lessons which can be learned?

Firstly, the affair highlights the importance academics and the public ascribe to the peer review process. While peer review is a slow, imperfect and expensive process, it remains a highly desirable component of the formal scholarly communication process. Scientists generally believe that it improves the quality and accuracy of research and the public relies upon the notion that peer review makes science more trustworthy.

Secondly, it illustrates that business decisions and editorial control may share an uncomfortably close relationship in some publishing models and we should be leery of the potential influence of financial considerations on editorial control.

Lastly, it underscores how important it is to periodically test the trust systems on which scientific publication rests. Organized skepticism is one of the cornerstone values of science [5], and a value that must be applied to scientific publishing as it is to science.

Philip Davis is a PhD student in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.

Notes:

[1] “Open Access Publisher Accepts Nonsense Manuscript for Dollars.” The Scholarly Kitchen (10 June, 2009) http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2009/06/10/nonsense-for-dollars/

[2] “Editor quits after journal accepts bogus science article: Science journal fails to spot hoax despite heavy hints from authors.” The Guardian, (18 June 2009) http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jun/18/science-editor-resigns-hoax-article

[3] “Editor will quit over hoax paper: Computer-generated manuscript accepted for publication in open-access journal.” Nature, (15 June 2009) http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090615/full/news.2009.571.html

[4] “Is lying for the cause OK?” TimesOnline (London), (17 June, 2009) http://timesonline.typepad.com/science/2009/06/fake-paper-furore.html

[5] Merton, R. K. 1942. Science and Technology in a Democratic Order. Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1: 115-126.