Scholarly Open-Access Publishing and the “Imprimatur of Science”

The AIDS conspiracy

Peer review and boundary work are essential in science.

Nattrass, Nicoli. (2012). The AIDS conspiracy: Science fights back. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chapter 7 of this forthcoming book is entitled “Defending the imprimatur of science,” and in it I found much that indirectly relates to scholarly open-access publishing.

The author tells the story of an Elsevier journal called Medical hypotheses that some AIDS denialists used to legitimize their arguments that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.  Summarizing, Nattrass wrote, “The episode highlights the importance of peer review as a core scientific value” (p. 135).

She defines and discusses boundary work, which is work by scientists that essentially draws a line between what counts as science and what doesn’t.

Medical hypotheses allowed denialists’ work to be published without peer review, while still conveying scientific status. Defending peer review, Nattrass states that “For all its faults, peer review remains an essential mechanism for the allocation of trust in the results of others” (p. 139).

Many questionable open-access publishers are making a mockery of peer review. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to observe and validate their peer-review practices, for they are not transparent.

These publishers and their journals are enabling more denialists and other pseudo-scientists to cross the boundary of science. By claiming to be publishers of peer-reviewed, scholarly journals, the publishers purport to possess the imprimatur of science.

The appearance of numerous questionable scholarly publishers threatens the boundary between science and quackery. It may become difficult or impossible for science to defend itself against the hoards of bogus journals.

Nattrass concludes, “Respect for the evidence and for the people who generate it is essential for the functioning of the scientific community” (p. 140).

The predatory open-access publishers do not respect the evidence or the people who create it. They do not care about the boundary between science and pseudo-science. They only care about generating income from the open-access publishing model and are a threat to the future of science and scholarly communication.

Note: Nattrass’ book will be published in March, 2012. The cited page numbers above are from the uncorrected proof.

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