Let’s face it, there’s lots of bogus stuff on the Internet. We all know it. We all worry about being taken in by spam, junk and just plain misinformation. Nature, The International Weekly Journal of Science, recently published an article about how the “explosion in open-access publishing has fueled the rise of questionable operators.” It is part of a series of articles that explore the business of scientific publishing. And not all of the scientific publishers are acting in the public good.
MedShadow’s mission is to help the general public find the true story on side effects and long-term effects — not just the hype or the fear mongering. And definitely not studies paid for by companies that have a lot to gain by minimizing very real problems.
It’s not easy. Back in the old days (pre-2005 or so), one had to subscribe to peer-reviewed journals to get access to dense pages of technical data on studies. But with the classic print journals came the comfort of knowing that the information being presented was of the highest caliber, vetted by medical professionals.
The world has changed. Open access is the byword now. It’s compelling — everyone should have access to all the scientific, medical papers. Who pays for this access? Who pays for the editor’s time to read hundreds of proposed articles to find the best few? Who pays for the process of peer-review? Who edits the final article so that it is clear and complete? In open-access, it’s the author of the paper. The author pays somewhere between $500 to $3,000, generally, to have the paper published. This opportunity has caused an explosion of new websites churning out articles. For example, PLoS One is a respected, open-access online publisher with multiple journals: PloSBiology and PLoS Medicine are two. PLoS One went from publishing a few hundred articles a year 5 years ago to 26,000 articles last year. Each was paid for by charging the author.
But not all the new websites are credible. Some companies put up scientific or medical research websites and publish articles by any scientist or doctor who will pay the fee. These sites are often aggressive about seeking articles, urging doctors to publish and not telling them about the publication fees until after the article is submitted. Worse, the articles are posted without review or editing — two steps that good web sites take that almost always improve the quality of the information in the article.
Long-time journals launch their websites carrying with them decades of credibility. But what happens when their logo, format and concept are stolen? Unscrupulous companies create copycat websites that are so close that scientists can’t tell the difference. Even sophisticated medical reference sites have been taken in by the copycats and the unreviewed article sites.
The risks to MedShadow and the public are which articles can we trust? Some of the articles on the scam websites are perfectly fine articles that wound up in the wrong place. Others present shoddy research that would not have been accepted in high-quality, peer-reveiwed journal sites.
Our staff works diligently to differentiate the articles and the sites. When we aren’t familiar with a site, we look to see who is on the board, whether the articles are peer-reviewed, what are the qualifications of the author, does it pass logic checks. We also look to other reliable news sources: did the New York Times report on this study? Did The Chicago Tribune?
The scientific journal field must have a way to measure and promote credibility. Without a public standard, all journals will be suspect. We who report on medicine will become more and more cautious. Ultimately the general public won’t know who to trust, and important information won’t get disseminated.
We will get fooled sometimes and we will correct our mistakes as fast as we learn of them. But we need international leadership to create a stamp of approval for all of our sakes.