Science publishing is big business. Ask Robert Maxwell – or rather you should have asked him when you had the chance. He started his business empire by siphoning off Germany’s scientific discoveries after World War 2 and publishing them in a stable of journals under his newly acquired Pergamon Press banner. The world is hungry for knowledge, and people who discover what they think is new knowledge are desperate for an audience. I am of the opinion that however ludicrous your claim, you can get it published somewhere in the world, and probably in a `peer reviewed’ journal.
The other week I wearily noted the announcement that the BMJ Group has taken over the journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society. The Group seems inordinately proud of its first foray into complementary medicine – no doubt because they can already hear the ring of the cash register.
But they are light years behind the big boys in publishing pseudo-science. Stand up anyone who hasn’t heard of Elsevier. Nobody? I thought not. Now how many of you think it’s a pukka science publisher? Well think again, because prominent in its portfolio is Homeopathy, a supposedly peer reviewed journal. Its editor in chief is the Queen’s homeopath Dr Peter Fisher. I haven’t taken much interest in this journal until a colleague pointed out a particularly irritating paper by Relton et al. My letter in reply is to appear in the January issue, with a response by the authors. I can’t wait. I’m told my letter was reviewed by Dr Fisher his very self. Have a look at the other papers appearing in Homeopathy, and be amazed at how much can be said about nothing – literally.
It doesn’t stop with fantasies about the memory of water. How about the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals? Actually the journal itself may well be genuine, but it is edited by Mohammed S. El Naschie, who has published 322 papers on numerological subjects which frankly I am not qualified to distinguish from gibberish. But others are so qualified, so I will leave you to read what they say. My point is not really about the gibberish, it’s about peer review or the abuse of it. You see, El Naschie has published this astonishing output in his own journal! This reminds me of the celebrated creationist Michael Behe, who had claimed that his work was peer reviewed. In fact the publication was his own book, and he eventually admitted that he did the review himself. But even if a journal claims independent peer review, what does that mean? In the case of Homeopathy, clearly the reviewers will mostly be other homeopaths. A peer is by definition someone at the same level as the author; in other words, it could be someone just as stupid as the author. Perhaps that’s a qualification in this case.
But to return to the opening question, this post is part of a concerted effort across the net to draw attention to the abuse of science by Elsevier. The attitude of this unjustifiably respected publisher is just the same as that of the UK’s post-1992 universities – it’s all about sales and nothing to do with truth. It’s a disease that is spreading across science publishing, as the BMJ Group demonstrates, and I and many others are not prepared to watch it happen while doing nothing.