SMACKDOWN: Peer Review v Open Access

The debate between peer review and open access reveals a bigger problem: the publishing business.

As Katie Williams points out when discussing academic publishing it is impossible to escape the debate of traditional peer-reviewed versus open access peer-review.

Peer review has always been the gold standard of science. However, ask an academic about peer-review and you’ll likely hear a grumble or two. There have long been problems with the peer-review process.

Many academics have spoken out about their issues with peer-review.

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Some of the top criticisms include:

  1. The system wrongly rejects scientifically valid papers

  2. The system wrongly accepts scientifically flawed papers

  3. It’s a biased system

Ben Goldacre has spoken out about traditional peer-review on numerous occasions. His book, Bad Pharma, speaks to the biases in academic publishing within medicine. The book outlines the problems with journals only publishing positive results from drug trials. He speaks more about it in his Ted Talk.  Ben Goldacre along with BMJ are making a push for more open access when it comes to publishing results of drug trials.

But open access may not be the solution to all the peer-review problems. After a ‘sting operation’ published in Science Magazine people started questioning open access.

The ‘sting’ was to send a fake paper to open-access journals to see how many would publish it. Results showed that over 70 per cent accepted the bogus paper. Most didn’t even conduct a review. Of the ones who did conduct a review only 36 of the 304 actually spotted the scientific errors in the paper. Science Magazine seemed to show that open access was a deeply flawed system that would never live up to the gold standard of peer-review.

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However, some pointed out that the ‘sting’ was flawed.

An article by Matt Shipman examines what the sting actually exposed: a flaw in publishing. It also pointed out that most of the peer reviews were in India and Africa, countries that are under extreme pressures to publish scientific work.

Despite the sting not really exposing the problems of open access there are still problems with open access journals such as the lack of regulation.

The debate between open access and traditional peer-review is ongoing. Both have their merits and pitfalls however, the debate seems to illuminate a larger issue: the nature of the publishing business.


  1. “As Katie Williams points out when discussing academic publishing it is impossible to escape the debate of peer-reviewed versus open access journals.” What non sense is that ? An open access journal does not equate lack of peer review !!!! Peer review is present ( to certain extent ) in every academic journal .The level of the peer review , yes , is discutable .Open peer review is peer review in an open manner adversly to traditionnal peer review which was done in a complete secrecy .

    1. Hi Samir when I wrote the article I meant traditional peer-review, i.e. the closed kind, versus open access peer-review. I have amended the article to clear up any confusion. Thank you for your comment.

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