Monday, 30 January 2012

Further Deterioration in Bioethics: The Journal of Clinical Research and Bioethics

Some of you might remember a piece that discussed some disturbing general tendencies with regard to quality-deterioration and misconduct in my own field of choice, bioethics. There, I focused quite a bit on the regrettable and rather obvious negative side-effect of the easiness of  setting up online open access academic publishing operations, that it opens the field for unserious players, sub-standard publications and outright fronts for earning money on internet-traffic and hideous "open access fees". These operations are in turn used by self-professed bioethics specialists who are unable to peddle their amateurish rubbish to established journals, where peer-review is usually very demanding and difficult to pass, thereby creating a glossy surface of credibility and status on their CVs. In that post, I used as an illustrating example a recent scandal in the online open access journal BMC Medical Ethics, where two such types, Mohamed Y Rady and Joseph L Verheijde had an article retracted for blatant plagiarism, which they dishonorably tried to brush under the carpet by claiming it to be "unintentional" (see my former post).

Among the things I learned while doing the research for that post, but didn't write about at the time, was that Mohamed Rady is actually listed as being on the editorial board of an even fishier online open access setup, The Journal of Clinical Research and Bioethics. Now, if BMC Medical Ethics is seen as the somewhat shabby underbrush (to their credit, they have actually modified the "unofficial impact factor" badge into a "tracked for impact factor" one!), the JCRB is definitely residing at a level closer to the ground. This much I had picked up via the persistent emails requesting manuscripts (and "open access fees") that I and many colleagues are constantly spammed with. However, not until today was I made aware of just how much of an actual cat hole the JCRB operation is.

My Finnish colleague, Pekka Louhiala supplies the following story, quoted verbatim with his permission from the closed Facebook-group Bioethics International (if you're interested in joining, contact Steve Miles on Facebook), except for the title of the manuscript and the dates, which I have edited in order to shield the authors of the concerned paper – as Pekka told me, they not be burdened by the rather severe misconduct of JCRB. The dates are given so that A in times precedes B, and B precedes C.
I'd like to report a case which, if not unique, tells about questionable
practices in the Journal of Clinical Research & Bioethics

On [Date C], I agreed to review a manuscript titled "XXX" [editing by CM]  for the journal. I read the paper carefully and wrote my review, suggesting rejection because the paper had major shortcomings, for example no own analysis on the ethical issues. The second reviewer agreed that it should be rejected.

To my surprise I found the paper publishes in the journal in exactly the
form I had seen! According to the table of contents it had been "Received
[Date A]; Accepted [Date B]; Published [Date C]".

What had happened? According to member of the editorial board there had been some delay because of his sick leave. However, the contact person in the journal knew about it. Obviously the staff in the journal had asked for another review
without informing the member of the editorial board.

According to this new reviewer, "The manuscript brings a very informative
and critical review on the ethical aspects of [topic of the paper, edited out by CM]. The text is well written, with no spelling or grammar errors, what makes it easy to follow by the readers.". This review has been written by a person who, according to ResearchGate, does not have a single publication on the topic.

In addition, I noticed the following:

1) The website of the journal does not mention an editor-in-chief, obviously there is no academic EoC.
2) The emails to the member of the editorial board are signed only by a first name
with no other information.
My conclusion

It seems to me the the primary interest of the journal is to collect the fees from the authors and not to keep a high academic standard.
It may appear harsh to jump directly to the conclusion that Pekka does here, but when one inspects the details about the "open access fee" one is required to pay to be published in this fine forum (click pic to enlarge), the hypothesis gains in credibility:

Add Pekka's story above (date of publication preceding the date of the first round of reviews had been delivered, just to mention the most blatant thing), plus the fact that JCRB is keeping Mohamed Rady on its editorial board as a guarantee for academic integrity and quality and I don't think that anyone needs much more evidence. I actually feel sorry for some of the people listed as members of the editorial board, several of whom I suspect are unaware of the true nature of the JCRB operation. Well, they need not be anymore. If they have any sense of integrity they will hand in their resignations immediately.

Just to clarify: I have nothing against open access or online solutions to academic publishing – on the contrary, I love both as long as they uphold academic standards of quality and integrity. However, as mentioned and once again evidenced, the simplicity of setting up something that looks like an academic journal just to make cash that this creates unfortunately attracts some scum and scam. Now, if not before, we know that the Journal of Clinical Research and Bioethics belongs in this latter category.