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Is the pay-to-publish movement a good thing?


Is it me, or is anyone else worried about the online, pay-to-publish movement sweeping science?

I am being inundated with “please publish in our online journal for a fee” emails. I confess, I tried it once or twice and was pleased with the published outcome, as I communicated a concept that I thought was important to the practice of medicine. However, it was a bit disconcerting that the publishers of this online journal wanted an article within 3 weeks. Naturally, a scientific publication thrown together in 3 weeks could not be that good – unless it already had been on the drawing board for a while. Of note, the various editors of these journals often maintain that the articles are “peer reviewed.”

An article that I paid the Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention to publish was one I coauthored, titled, “Prenatal vitamins deficient in recommended choline intake for pregnant women” (J Fam Med Dis Prev. 2016;2[4]1-3.)

That very straightforward article that surveyed the choline content in the top 75 prenatal vitamins showed that none of those vitamins contained the daily recommended dosage for pregnant women established by the Institute of Medicine in 1998. So, in many ways, the conclusions we drew in the article were a no-brainer and the result of simple, yet important observations that science had overlooked.

Despite the straightforward nature of that pay-to-publish article, the evidence it presented was sufficient to get the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates to pass a resolution calling for an increase in the choline content in prenatal vitamins.

So on the negative side of the ledger, I am concerned that some very “faulty science” could get published in the online, pay-to-publish journals, in light of what seems like their rush to publish. Of course, every now and then some of our prestigious journals publish information that is poorly interpreted, such as the recent article about the suicide rates among U.S. youth (JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172[7]:697-9).

Another separate, but related issue is what at least seems from a distance to be a rush by some of the tried and true medical journals (the New England Journal of Medicine, the various JAMA Network journals, The Lancet, and so on), to keep up with the trend of online journals by making their journals more accessible online.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

I am concerned but not sure what to do about these new publishing trends in medicine and science. Accordingly, I will advocate that, as physicians and scientists, we learn how to read research reports critically and how to be clear when a research design is solid and leads to legitimate scientific conclusions. We must be able to discern when reports are poorly designed – and when they lead to “junk science.”

Like most things, Internet access to scientific articles is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that more people around the world will be able to get access to scientific study and facts they can use to improve health care. The curse is that the “snake oil salespeople” may have better opportunities to convince the public that their “snake oil” works and the public should buy their “cure.”


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