The cheque book is mightier than the pen…..

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.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting post. I’d seen the thing about Naschie elsewhere (probably the Bad Science miniblog).

    I like Homeopathy and JACM as examples of peer-reviewed journals that aren’t worthy of the name, I think Dr Aust featured them both in an early post on his blog about medical journals.

  2. Cheers for this, completely agree that Elsevier has no interest in quality assurance with regard to the journals it publishes, as long as people/institutions will buy them. Another factor in this is that Elsevier sells institutions “bundles” of journals: this BMJ article suggests that this is very expensive and “sustains journals that might otherwise not be viable on their own”. I think Homeopathy might be an example of this.

    I’ll be interested in what you have to say on that Relton article: I wrote a little on it here. What struck me was that they seemed to be trying really, really hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that homeopathy=placebo.

  3. I was rather less generous to Relton et al than you were! I see it as an attempt to muddy the waters and avoid asking the key question, “Do ultra-dilute solutions have specific biological effects?”. Homeopaths say they do, it’s very easy to test and has been repeatedly. I just think all this woolly thinking by sociologists (which Relton et al are) is of no value to the debate – we need to ask clear questions and get clear answers.

    Yes, I read about Elsevier’s bundling policy elsewhere. Quite appalling.

  4. My friends in science publishing all tell me that Elsevier are, shall we say, famous (infamous?) in the biz for the swingeing cost, and aggressive pricing and bundling policy on their journals.

    It is widely understood that the profit margins on technical and scientific publishing are notably larger than on normal book or magazine publishing, and Elsevier have long enjoyed the reputation for being easily the most gouging of the big science publishers. Indeed, I know a good few scientists who won’t publish in any Elsevier journal just because of this. Of course, eye-watering journal prices presumably help Elsevier push the “bundling” deals, as then the hard-pressed and budget-limited University librarian at least thinks s/he is getting some kind of economy.

    I have even heard scientists (and even some publishers) opine that Elsevier are almost single handedly responsible for turning the open access movement in science publishing into a mass movement, simply because their behaviour has been so arrogant and their profits so indefensible.

    The El Naschie journal thing is very funny, if a bit depressing. Of the other journals mentioned, Homeopathy is a long-standing journal (I think it was previously called the “British Homeopathic Journal”) published by the Faculty of Homeopathy, i.e. the medically-trained homeopaths – hence Peter Fisher (MRCP) being the editor. It is probably the least overtly ludicrous of the homeopathy “journals”, not that that’s saying a great deal.

    Another depressing recent arrival in the “Alt Journals” field is “Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (sic) or ECAM, published by the normally vaguely sane Oxford University Press. I mentioned this journal in the blog post jdc refers to above.

    Finally, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine is a particularly risible excuse for a journal – definitely bottom of the barrel. You will find any number of posts in the skeptic blogosphere pointing out particular instances of its dismal failure to adhere to use any meaningful reviewing standards, at least if one judges by the quality of what gets published. It is, to all intents and purposes, just a house organ for quacks with scientific pretensions – a classic “Journal of Cargo Cult Science”. There is a little bit about the JACM in this post.

  5. PS The other thing Chairman / Cap’n Bob Maxwell did was corner the market in science published in Eastern European languages – notably Russian, but others too -often stuff published by these countries’ national science academies, which in the Eastern Bloc countries were very powerful and largely ran science.

    Cap’n Bob assiduously cultivated the academy bigwigs, high Govt officials and even the national leaders in the Eastern Bloc countries – the ghastly Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania being a notable example. This meant Cap’n’ Bob’s Pergamon got “privileged access” to their scientific literature, and could publish books and even whole journals generated by doing cheap translations from the original Russian / Romanian / Czech or whatever.

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