2010-08-12

Bible virology: pay to play?

The authors of a paper about influenza in biblical times, which appeared online on 21 July 2010 in Virology Journal (operated by BioMed Central Ltd.), argue that "the woman with fever in the Bible is among one of the very early description of human influenza disease." Sébastien Boisvert reports.

Perhaps this is the most hilarious paper to have ever existed. And the bizarre event is even documented on Wikipedia.

On 1 August 2010, Paul A Gray, at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint-Louis, U.S.A., asked Virology Journal Editor-in-Chief Robert F Garry, at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, if "the Editor actually read this submission and decided that no peer review was necessary."

"I had my qualms about BioMedCentral journals and this only makes then stronger.", he added.

The Editor-in-Chief at Virology Journal then responded quickly stating clearly that "this article was read by an Editor and peer reviewed." But he hastely retracted the said paper the same day. Whether or not the paper went through peer review remains elusive.

This act was a deliberate attempt of open (read not anonymous) reviewing. The commenting system allowed a scientist to raise a red flag, and the publishing company responded accordingly.

Unfortunately, open review won't be around any time soon. "Despite enthusiasm for the concept, open peer review was not widely popular, either among authors or by scientists invited to comment." concluded Nature.

Robert F Garry did a poor job as a knowledge gatekeeper. Doubt persists as to whether or not it was peer-reviewed and assessed by an Associate Editor. In the affirmative, the required competence of the latter was lacking. Even a lay person would recognise the hilarious traits of the said work. And the title alone should turn on a warning light.

"I'm not a virologist, but if the standards for this journal are this lax, I wouldn't be wasting my time sending any of my papers there" wrote Tara C Smith, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at College of Public Health at the University of Iowa.

"I'm not a virologist, but if the standards for this journal are this lax, I wouldn't be wasting my time sending any of my papers there." - Tara C Smith

Paul Zachary Myers -- a biologist and Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris -- wrote that his "favorite parts were the bits where the authors noted that Jesus did not take her temperature because the Fahrenheit scale wasn't invented until 1724."

Impending clash

According to Michael Nielsen, one of the pioneers of quantum computation, scientific publishing is about to be disrupted.

The null production cost of online publication is disrupting the industry. It is tearing it apart.

Institutions want highly-cited works (read high impact factor) to be associated with their names. And there is the Internet. Online-only publishing companies are a natural response to these. What we see is a plague against which no immune system can withhold.

Hilarity ensues.

Too few barriers are in place to inhibit such behaviours from open access publishers, one Paul A Gray called "pay to play".

To put it simply, it is perhaps a form of external evaluation. Surely the phenomena can be related to the concept of 'externality' in economics. It is the outsourcing of critical assessment of the every works of an institution's researchers. But what happens if that outsourced reviewing is performed by technological companies that truly lack science/medicine expertise.

Such an organisation receives a document, observes a delay (time adds prestige), collects currency, and uploads a PDF to a web server. The paper is then enhanced with at least a brand name -- the journal title backed with the publishing legacy of the company. While profiting of the financial wealth generated, such an enterprise can be perilous for the perpetuity of science, if not properly regulated.

Obviously, bombastic writings are not enough to make a good scientist, but surely they are convincing in the communication process with a for-profit publishing company.

Springer will soon produce more of these gems with their online-only SpringerOpen journals. As they put it, "SpringerOpen makes it easier than ever for authors to benefit from Springer's trusted brand."

Publishers such as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press and Oxford University Press are desperately needed in these times of scientific publishing impending collapse.

The necessity of trust, that a received manuscript is surely scientifically sound, stirs too many concerns; too much is at stake.

Also on BioMed Central, but in a different paper, one can read that "the data have been released into pubic sequence repositories". Although this could be a typographical error, one can presume that peer-review was done hastely.


Citation:


Kam LE Hon, Pak C Ng and Ting F Leung. Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time. Virology Journal 2010, 7:169 doi:10.1186/1743-422X-7-169 

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2 comments:

G. Landry said...

BTW, the editor most likely did not retract the article because of the 1 August 2010 comment, but rather because on 10 August 2010, Bob O'Hara from This Scientific Life reported the story. This then got picked up at Atieology and Pharyngula in the following days.

It was only when the thing went viral (no pun intended... well maybe a bit), and that the article became the most downloaded article from Virology Journal, then the editor retracted it.

Sébastien Boisvert said...

Hello G. Landry,

What you are suggesting is that an anonymous blogger from the Internet is more effective at retracting a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal than established scientists who are writing blogs such as Atieology and Pharyngula.

Perhaps the biggest concern here is the utterly ridiculous nature of the said paper, which can be detected by a lay person, but not by the Editor.